Spotlight on Canadians’ religious beliefs
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While many Canadians today still hold religious beliefs, a declining number feel the need to be part of a religious community where those beliefs are preached and shared.
That’s the finding of new research by Leger for the Association for Canadian Studies and reported by the National Post.
The research, conducted online in February and March, suggests that for many Canadians there is a “decoupling” of belief from participating in or affiliating with a religious body. That is, they believe in God but no longer attend worship services.
At the same time, it found some other Canadians remain connected to a religious group, but question that group’s central tenets and beliefs — like whether there really is a God.
“For some people, you can question your belief in God without questioning your religion,” said Jack Jedwab of the Montreal-based Association for Canadian Studies.
It’s happening to all faith groups, he said — Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism.
After reading the study, I turned once again to scholars who study religion in Canada to help interpret its findings.
For Sam Reimer, who teaches at Crandall University in Moncton, the findings fit neatly with his own research into Canadian evangelicals that shows a growing number are ignoring traditional evangelical beliefs in order to follow their own paths.
“People want to do their own personal spiritual journey,” said Reimer, author of the new book Caught in the Current: British and Canadian Evangelicals in an Age of Self-Spirituality.
According to Reimer, these are people who still go to church but “don’t necessarily believe everything their preacher says” on topics like MAiD or LGBTTQ+ welcome and affirmation.
For Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme of the University of Waterloo, this decoupling “has been a trend that has been going on for a long time across Canada, especially since the 1960s.”
What’s different now is belief in God is now declining much faster, especially among younger people. “The rate of belief in God is quite a bit lower than where it used to be a few decades ago,” she said.
For many Canadians, this means giving up things like regular attendance at a worship service is easier to do. Why go if you don’t believe it?
John Stackhouse also teaches at Crandall. For him this decoupling is illustrated by how many Canadians continue to say they have a belief in God — “whatever ‘belief’ might mean” — long after any serious involvement in religion has ebbed.
That is “especially so in this golden age of personal ‘spirituality,’ in which one can define ‘God’ any way one likes, with little or no social cost to pay for what once would have been considered ‘heretical’ views,” he said.
For Lori Beam of the University of Ottawa, the main question is what is meant by religious belief.
“When people say they believe in God, what exactly does that mean in terms of translation into everyday life or major life events?” she asked.
She is also curious about shifts in the social framework where people can make declarations of belief or nonbelief. “It has become more possible and acceptable to say one does not believe in God,” she said about the growing secularism in Canada today.
She wonders if the study’s findings represent an actual shift away from involvement in religion or whether people just find it more socially acceptable to say they don’t believe in God or attend a place of worship — unlike in the past, when that was not only commonplace, but often expected.
Peter Schuurman teaches religion and philosophy at Redeemer University in Ontario. He wonders about the effect of the internet on religiosity today.
“Where people’s bodies go for prayer and social bonding are different from where their web browsers go,” he said. “This decoupling may have started in the 1960s, but it’s been exacerbated by the internet.”
Someone might attend a conservative place of worship, he said, and publicly acknowledge traditional religious beliefs, but visit progressive religious websites in the privacy of their home.
The final observation goes to Stuart Macdonald of Knox College at the University of Toronto, who is doing research into religion in Canada in the 1950s and 1960s.
Spending time in that world, when almost everyone belonged to a faith community or went to worship services on a regular basis, makes him feel like a “time traveller,” he said.
“No one back then would have imagined the conversations we’re having now,” he said.
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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.
The Free Press acknowledges the financial support it receives from members of the city’s faith community, which makes our coverage of religion possible.