"God is still doing reasonably well in the polls."
That was the title of the most recent research by Reginald Bibby, a sociologist of religion at the University of Lethbridge.
According to Bibby, who has been conducting surveys about religion in Canada since the 1970s, 32 per cent of Canadians say they definitely believe in God while around 27 per cent say they think God exists — about 60 per cent overall.
He also found 15 per cent definitely don’t believe God exists, while 26 per cent don’t think so.
As for Manitoba, Bibby found a higher number of people in this province believe God exists — 42 per cent. About 20 per cent think there is a God, while 10 per cent are sure there is no God. Twenty-nine per cent say they don’t think there is a God.
This is a marked change from 35 years ago; back then, 61 per cent of Canadians said they definitely believed in God and 23 per cent thought God existed. Also back then, only six per cent of Canadians said they were atheists.
Why the change? Bibby traces it partly to the baby boomer generation, who "have been less inclined to express decisive belief in God," he said.
Boomers passed their lack of belief to their children, who have in turn passed it to their children, he added. "Both belief and disbelief are socially transmitted," he said.
Another reason is greater acceptance of atheism in Canada compared to years ago. Today, he said, "one doesn’t have to suppress the fact that they don’t believe."
Bibby acknowledges the trendlines in Canada are moving away from religion. There has been a "noteworthy decline in clear-cut believers since the mid-1970s," he said.
Yet he is still bullish on belief. While many Canadians have said goodbye to God, "large numbers have not," he said.
What do other scholars of religion think about Bibby’s findings? I reached out to a few to find out. They expressed appreciation for Bibby’s research, but weren’t so sure things are that good for God in Canada.
"The average Canadian has moved toward no religion," said Sam Reimer, professor of sociology at Crandall University.
"Research over time shows increased disaffiliation, lower religious practice, like attendance, and lower belief… this is the dominant trend."
What impressed John Stackhouse, professor of religious studies at Crandall, about Bibby’s findings is how widespread non-belief has become.
He noted there are no statistically important differences between men and women or regions of Canada when it comes to not believing.
Similarly, he said, the drop-off in belief by older Canadians — traditionally regarded as the most religious — stands out.
When it comes to belief in God, "it’s a pretty flat landscape," he stated, suggesting God may not be doing as well in the Canadian polls as Bibby thinks.
It’s like "we Canadians continue to race the Dutch, and perhaps the Aussies and Kiwis, for the steepest rate of de-Christianization since perhaps the French Revolution," he said.
For Rick Hiemstra, director of research at the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, the question needs reframing today.
He noted when Bibby first started asking this question in the mid-1970s, "the idea of what belief in God might mean and what someone might be asserting if they claimed to believe in God was more defined."
Back then, the question would have been interpreted through a lens of attendance at religious services, assenting to historic creeds or practising faith through scripture study and prayer. Today, he said, it is more likely to mean whatever people want to believe.
"The responses from the 1970s and from today are not really comparable," he said. "The question may have stayed the same but the way it is understood has changed."
Hiemstra suggested a better way of ascertaining belief would be to ask what belief in God means to people, and how it changes the way they live and relate to others.
For Joel Thiessen, professor of sociology at Ambrose University, Bibby’s headline about how God is doing is "technically not incorrect. It just doesn’t capture the main storyline and shifting trajectory of decline."
Simply asking people if they believe in God "doesn’t really tell us a lot about what difference belief makes or not to people’s lived experiences," he said.
Lori Beaman is the Canada Research Chair for Religious Diversity and Social Change at the University of Ottawa. She also would ask the question differently.
"I’d be more interested in exploring how people perceive God’s impact in their day-to-day lives and intersections around important issues like climate change, social justice and so on… a more complex picture that focuses on practice rather than belief, or in addition to belief," she said.
Kevin Flatt, professor of history at Redeemer University College, agreed. For him the more important question is what belief in God means — how it impacts behaviour. "That’s where the action is," he said.
For Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Waterloo, the main takeaway from Bibby’s research is the change in religiosity in Canada.
"It’s easy to get jaded or bored by a trend that we’ve seen develop over many decades, but we shouldn’t forget the magnitude of that trend," she said.
We are "transitioning from an age that lasted many hundreds of years during which the vast majority of Westerners believed in a Christian God, to an age now where belief and non-belief co-exist… it’s a fundamental shift."
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.