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Canadians show more apathy than hostility toward organized religion

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What do non-churchgoers think of organized religion in Canada?

That's what staff at the United Church Observer wanted to know. To find out, the magazine contracted a research firm to poll 3,000 English-speaking Canadians on how they view organized religion in Canada -- Christianity, in particular.

"Anecdotally, we know our country has become less religious over time, and we wanted to develop a comprehensive set of statistics to explain what we were seeing," says Observer editor David Wilson.

What did the survey find?

Sixty-six per cent say they believe there is a God. Seventeen per cent do not, while 17 per cent are unsure.

Seven per cent of Canadians describe themselves as devoutly religious, 37 per cent as a person of faith, while 10 per cent are against religion.

Ninety per cent of Canadians say they are familiar with Christianity, compared to 61 per cent for Judaism, 39 per cent for Islam, 28 per cent for Hinduism, 34 per cent for Buddhism and 23 per cent for Sikhism.

As for all the denominations in Christianity in Canada, 41 per cent think they are largely the same, while 43 per cent say there are some significant differences.

What do respondents to the survey think are the very significant reasons why people get involved with a church? The top reasons given are to feel in touch with God, to follow Jesus, to seek personal comfort, to ensure they go to heaven when they die and to be part of a caring community.

Is religion good for society? Forty per cent of respondents think so. Twenty-five per cent say it's neither good nor bad, while another 25 per cent say it depends. Ten per cent say it is bad.

When asked to pick just one thing they think organized religion could offer Canadians, 43 per cent say addressing "the needs of people in the broader community," 26 per cent say helping people on their life journey and 19 per cent say to help with personal spiritual development.

Ten per cent don't want religious groups to do anything at all. And only two per cent say they want religious groups to try to promote their religion -- to do evangelism.

When it comes to involvement in politics, 36 per cent agree it would be right for leaders of organized religion to try to influence government policy on issues such as assisted suicide or same-sex marriage. Fifty-eight per cent disagree.

When asked if they think most churches encourage questions and debate about God, 49 per cent believe that to be the case. What about helping people in poverty? Seventy-six per cent of respondents think most churches are interested in helping people who are poor.

What about helping people deal with day-to-day issues in their lives -- are churches any good at that? Sixty-nine per cent of those who responded to the survey think churches are good places to get that kind of assistance.

When it comes to making people feel welcome, 61 per cent say they think most churches do not make people feel at home. This includes making same-sex couples feel welcome.

As for addressing the root causes of injustice in the world, 63 per cent do not believe most churches are interested in doing that.

Interestingly, a lot of people see church as placing excessive demands on their time. Forty-two per cent of respondents believed that to be the case, with more people under 35 feeling this way.

As for going to church itself, 63 per cent say they think worship services are boring.

What to make of the results? For pollster Jane Armstrong, the survey shows there's more of an indifference and lack of knowledge about religion in Canada than opposition or disdain for organized religion.

"The survey shows us that even though institutionalized religion may be a turnoff for some people, especially those in the 'spiritual not religious' crowd, it would be wrong to characterize Canadians as anti-religion," she says.

Adds Joel Thiessen, a sociologist who studies religion at Ambrose University College in Calgary: "As opposed to irreligious Americans, who are often hostile to religion, the growing group of Canadians who say they have no religion are apathetic overall."

This was the first of a two-part survey about Canadians' attitudes toward religion. The second part will deal with attitudes toward the United Church itself. You can read the full survey online at

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 19, 2014 D15

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