For a quarter of a century, Reginald Bibby has been Canada’s foremost tracker of religious trends, conducting national surveys every five years and writing a series of best-selling books summing up his findings. Those have been good years for the University of Lethbridge sociologist, but decidedly less so for Canada’s main religious groups, which saw weekly attendance continue to plummet and their influence over society wane. While Bibby is himself a person of faith, his telescoping of all this was not universally welcomed, and he became known, in some quarters, as “Bad News Bibby.” This week, with the publication of his latest book, Restless Gods: The Renaissance of Religion in Canada (Stoddart), the 58year-old academic may finally shed that moniker. Bibbys central conclusions: God
is very much alive in the hearts and minds of Canadians and, if they play their cards right, the country’s religious groups are primed for an era of renewal and rebirth.
Truth to tell, there is nowhere to go but up. Bibbys latest survey, taken in 2000, found 21 per cent of Canadians attending religious services on a weekly basis, down from 31 per cent in his original, 1975 sampling—and far below the 60 per cent who attended in 1945, according to Gallup. The exodus was even more dramatic among Quebec Catholics, with weekly attendance nose-diving from around 90 per cent in 1945 to 20 per cent in 2000.
For all of that, Bibby finds a remarkable number of Canadians continue to identify themselves as part of a particular faith and are receptive to the idea of returning actively to the fold, under the right circumstances. In the 2000 survey, 85 per cent
of Canadians associated themselves with a religious denomination. Among those who were attending services sporadically or not at all, 55 per cent said they would consider becoming more active if they “found it to be worthwhile” for themselves or their families. Moreover, Bibby discovered that the vast majority, whether religiously active or not, had no interest in switching—moving, say, from the Anglican to the Baptist Church—or sampling so-called New Age spiritual movements.
What Bibby takes from all this is that Canadas mainstream religious groups have a huge pool of “inactive affiliates” who, if a concerted effort were made, could be identified, targeted and likely reactivated. The most promising example, he says, is Quebec, where six million people continue to see themselves as Catholics, even if only a fraction regularly attends church. “What you have in Quebec is a powerful company, part of this multinational known as the Catholic Church,” Bibby told Macleans in an interview. “If Rome made Quebec a high priority for renewal, I sure wouldn’t bet against them.”
Adding to Bibbys optimism is the overwhelming evidence that Canadians continue to be deeply spiritual. In his latest survey, 81 per cent of respondents attested to a belief in God, including 55 per cent of those who never attend religious services. Three out of four Canadians said they pray at least occasionally, and nearly half claimed to have personally experienced God, whether through near-death experiences or something as simple as a sense of awe at the beauty and order of the natural environment. Two-thirds of those surveyed believe in life after death, and similar numbers struggle regularly with what Bibby terms the “ultimate questions” regarding the deeper meaning of life and what happens after we die.
Bibby says religious groups need to find a way to respond to the basic yearnings and concerns of these potential adherents. And he thinks there are some early signs of success. His 2000 survey shows that, for the first time in years, church attendance among teens is on the upswing, something Bibby credits to a renewed emphasis by many denominations on ministering to youth. Similar efforts across the age spectrum, he argues, could pay even bigger dividends. “The fact so many people openly acknowledge spiritual needs,” says Bibby, “points to a desire for something or someone that can satisfy them.” ESI
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