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This article was published 14/3/2020 (590 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
In their influential 2018 book Leaving Christianity: Changing Allegiances in Canada Brian Clarke and Stuart Macdonald chart the decline of the institutional church in this country.
Using census data, they show that many denominations are in serious trouble — mainline, of course, but also other groups such as the Christian Reformed, Pentecostals, Mennonites, the Salvation Army and some Baptists.
As for Catholics, more members of that church are switching to no religion, along with a "remarkable rise" in the number who never attend services.
Altogether, it adds up to a significant "disengagement with church-based religion," they write.
These changes will "profoundly affect how Canadians live their lives, the vitality of their religious institutions, the salience of these institutions in Canadian society, and the state of Canadian civil society, in which churches and church-affiliated organizations had a significant presence."
If that’s true — and many would agree with that assessment — what will be the practical implications of this profound change? A group of Canadian and international scholars are planning to find out.
Earlier this year they launched Understanding Nonreligion in a Complex Future, a new seven-year research project directed by Lori Beaman, Canada Research Chair in Religious Diversity and Social Change and professor in the department of classics and religious studies at the University of Ottawa.
Colloquially known as the "nonreligion project," the research is supported by a $2.5 million grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).
Through the project, the researchers will explore the impact of nonreligion in five areas such as health, law, education, the environment and migration in Canada, and compare it with what’s happening in countries such as Australia, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, the U.S., United Kingdom, Brazil and Argentina.
"Canada has experienced massive change" when it comes to religion, Beaman says, noting "we were once a country where almost everyone identified as Christian."
As that Christian influence wanes, "what are the social impacts, both positive and negative?" she asks.
By way of example, she cites an issue such as medical assistance in dying, which is adamantly opposed by the leaders of many faith groups based on their religious beliefs.
But if a majority of Canadians are no longer religious, and don’t feel obligated to accept or support religious points of views on the matter, what role should religion play in the discussion?
The project will also touch on the impact of declining religiosity for giving and volunteering, reporting on new ways Canadians are being encouraged to come together to donate time and money and be engaged in civil society.
The researchers will also examine the various ways people are nonreligious, such as atheists, humanists, and those who say they are spiritual-but-not-religious.
They also want to see what they can learn about those who still identify with a faith group, but who are involved in any meaningful way — they hardly attend services, don’t donate or volunteer or participate in religious rituals.
The latter group is very interesting, she says, but also "complex. They are much less visible."
One thing the researchers don’t want to do is advocate for or oppose any way of doing or not doing things from a religious point of view. "We want to neutrally evaluate the impact of nonreligion," she says.
As for Beaman herself, she has mixed feelings about the decline of Christianity in Canada. "There is both a feeling of sadness and of the possibility of something new around this shift," she says.
As for what the actual societal impacts of the decline in institutional Christianity in Canada might be, "trying to predict what will happen is a dangerous game," she says. So, stay tuned; over the next seven years we can look forward to some interesting answers.
Other Canadian academics involved in the project, which is right now in the design phase, include Peter Beyer of the University of Ottawa; Solange Lefebvre of the University of Montréal; Sheryl Reimer-Kirkham of Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C.; Jennifer A. Selby of Memorial University; Joel Thiessen Ambrose University; Amélie Barras of York University; Paul Bramadat of the University of Victoria; Brian Clarke of the Toronto School of Theology; and Sara Wilkins-Laflamme and Bessma Momani of the University of Waterloo.
More information about the project can be found at https://nonreligionproject.ca/.
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.