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Be calm and carry on: religion is alive and well

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"Don't panic!"

That's the phrase printed on the cover of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a guidebook to the galaxy from the novel of the same name by Douglas Adams. No matter what happens -- even if Earth is about to be destroyed by Vogons to make way for a new hyperspace freeway -- the Guide says: Don't panic!

"Don't panic!" isn't printed on the cover of Reginald Bibby's new e-book, A New Day: The Resilience and the Restructuring of Religion in Canada, but that's the basic message he wants to share with people of faith in this country.

No matter if fewer people are attending worship services, if more people are declaring they belong to no faith group, or if membership in mainline Protestant groups is falling -- religion in Canada is not in danger of disappearing.

"Many observers have focused their attention on the decline of a few of the previously prominent groups, and assumed their plight is the plight of religion as a whole," says Bibby, a University of Lethbridge sociologist who has been studying religion in Canada for more than 30 years.

"Religion in Canada is not going to go away," he states.

For evidence, Bibby points to Statistics Canada surveys showing a majority of Canadians engage in personal religious and spiritual practices, and that many people say religion and spirituality are important to the way they live.

Then there's immigration. Between 2001 and 2006, 1.1 million immigrants arrived in Canada.

Of that total, he says, eight out of 10 said they were religious, with five out of those eight identifying as Christian and the others being part of other faith traditions.

Since immigrants tend to attend worship services more than native-born Canadians, faith groups in Canada are benefiting from their arrival, Bibby says. One of the main beneficiaries is the Catholic Church, which has welcomed many new members from Asia -- especially from the Philippines.

But what about the rest of Canadians? Through his research, Bibby has found a large group of what he calls "the ambivalent middle" when it comes to religion. Unlike the 20 per cent or so who are committed to faith groups, and the 20 per cent or so who say they have no religion, these people have not "slammed the door" on religious involvement. Many say they would be open to greater involvement in faith groups -- if they found it to be worthwhile.

"That is an extremely important qualifier," he says, noting that where the old model depended on a sense of duty and obligation, the new one is about meeting people's needs.

All of this seems to fly in the face of conventional thinking; a look at the Canadian religious scene would suggest organized religion is in irreversible decline.

After all, weekly worship attendance has dropped to under 20 per cent in 2001 from 60 per cent in 1950, and hardly a week goes by without news of another church closing.

The death of religion would seem to be only a few short years away.

Bibby doesn't see it that way. "It's not written in the stars that Canada will become an increasingly secularized country, where religion is relegated to the past," he says. "A significant number of Canadians have dropped out of religion, but many are still religiously committed."

Plus, he adds, there's that ambivalent middle -- people who could go either way.

"Does this mean that everyone (in the ambivalent middle) is open to involvement in religious groups? Of course not," he states. "But it does mean that significant numbers of Canadians haven't said a final goodbye to religion. The reality in Canada is that religion is not going to go away."

He does acknowledge that things aren't rosy for all groups, such as mainline Protestants.

"In the case of mainliners, their immigration pipelines have, to a large extent, dried up," he says. "They are having difficulty holding on to their children; and they are not very aggressive about recruiting outsiders. The result is that mainline Protestants mortality is not being offset by new additions."

Other groups are facing challenges, too. Attendance patterns, for example, are changing for many churches. People once considered themselves to be regular attenders if they went to worship services every week; today they feel that way if they go once or twice a month.

"We used to use weekly attendance to illustrate religious commitment," Bibby says. "But that has become a poor indicator of the importance of religious involvement for many people, especially dual-income parents and people who are geographically mobile."

If a person can show up for services two to three times a month, he says, "that seems to be a reasonable indication that their involvement is important to them."

For Bibby, the take-away from his research is this: "Contrary to widespread thinking, religion is not going away. A solid, durable core of Canadians continues to value faith. Secularization is not relentless and inevitable. Religion will always be with us. The only question is what proportion of the population will embrace faith or reject it."

 

A New Day: The Resilience and the Restructuring of Religion in Canada is available free from www.reginaldbibby.com

jdl562000@yahoo.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 29, 2012 J16

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