Stats on religion in Canada not surprising for scholars


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For scholars who study religion in Canada, the latest pre-pandemic findings from Statistics Canada about religion in this country are not surprising.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/11/2021 (449 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

For scholars who study religion in Canada, the latest pre-pandemic findings from Statistics Canada about religion in this country are not surprising.

“No big surprises,” said John Stackhouse, who teaches religion at Crandall University in New Brunswick. “No surprises in these trends,” added Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme, who teaches sociology at the University of Waterloo.

What’s not surprising for them is the continued decline in affiliation and attendance at religious services, as detailed in a new study titled “Religiosity in Canada and its evolution from 1985 to 2019.”

The report, which used data from the General Social Survey, found around two-thirds of Canadians were affiliated with religious groups in 2019, down from 90 per cent in 1985.

During the same time period, those who said they attended a group religious activity at least once a month fell by almost half, from 43 per cent to 23 per cent.

A similar trend occurred over the importance of religious or spiritual beliefs. In 2003, 71 per cent said their religious or spiritual beliefs were somewhat or very important. In 2019, that number was down to 54 per cent.

Also not surprising to the scholars are the generational differences; the younger someone is, the less religious they tend to be.

In general, the report said, “recent generations were less likely than the generations that came before them to report a religious affiliation, to participate in group or individual religious activities, or to place a high value on religious and spiritual beliefs in how they live their lives.”

The report found some differences, though. People born outside Canada were more likely than those born in Canada to report a religious affiliation and participate in group religious activities.

And yet their children are not unlike other Canadian young people, reporting less religious affiliation and group participation.

There is also a difference between groups. For example, 85 per cent of Jehovah’s Witnesses, 80 per cent of Latter-day Saints and 75 per cent of Mennonites participated in group religious activities monthly. By contrast, only 15 per cent of Buddhists and 19 per cent of Anglicans and United Church of Canada members did so.

In terms of the overall picture, 23 per cent of Canadians reported participating in a group religious activity like a worship service at least once a month, while 37 per cent said they engaged in religious or spiritual activities on their own.

As soon as I got the report, I contacted my scholars “brain trust” for some reactions.

“There’s not much comfort to be found for religious groups in immigration,” said Stackhouse, noting the trend for second and third generations of even the most religious parents and grandparents is towards becoming less religious.

There was also no surprise for him about lower religiosity among young people. “I teach many of those young people and their knowledge and practice of Christianity or of other religions is low,” he said.

Wilkins-Laflamme noted a “significant proportion of adults across Canada in all regions prefer to have their own set of beliefs that they consider as religious or spiritual . . . without having to grapple with the external authority of religious leaders and involvement with religious groups.”

Sam Reimer, who teaches at Crandall University, also noted the connection between the move away from group religious practices and private beliefs.

“We should not assume that any move from religious to spiritual means private practices are increasing for many, while their public or group religiosity is decreasing. They seem to decline together,” he said.

Rick Hiemstra, who directs research for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC), noted the pandemic will play a large role in how Canadians engage religion in the future.

A recent study done by the EFC found weekly religious service attendance fell from 11 per cent pre-COVID to nine per cent during COVID for online services.

“A two per cent drop doesn’t seem like much until you consider that it represents almost a fifth of weekly religious service attendance,” he noted, adding “Church attendance is unlikely to rise above its during-COVID attendance levels once the pandemic ends. We’re never going back.”

Joel Thiessen teaches sociology at Ambrose University College in Calgary. He noted that while immigrants are more religious than other Canadians, older people who were born outside of Canada also showed less religiosity over time.

The fact their children are becoming less religious is consistent with other studies that show “immigrants are more religious in the first generation, but this wanes with each passing generation,” he said.

Lori Beaman, who teaches at the University of Ottawa, noted the story isn’t all grim; lots of people still claim a religious affiliation and have some involvement. “They just don’t necessarily do it like they did 60 years ago,” she said.

As I reflect on the study, I’m also not surprised; I see these trends in my own circles. But I also know numbers don’t tell the whole story. As Hiemstra put it: “Number are not destiny.” But they do point to changes over time in the way Canadians engage with religion. Who knows what new expressions of spirituality will rise up in the future?

The full Statistics Canada study can be found at

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John Longhurst

John Longhurst
Faith reporter

John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.

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