It turns out God is alive and well in Canada. So are angels, heaven, and ESP.

Brian Bethune July 1 2006


It turns out God is alive and well in Canada. So are angels, heaven, and ESP.

Brian Bethune July 1 2006



It turns out God is alive and well in Canada. So are angels, heaven, and ESP.


Lake Wobegon, the American humourist Garrison Keillor once said of his fictional Minnesota town, was so Lutheran that “even the Catholics were Lutheran,” There’s a lot of universal truth in that remark: religious faiths do shape the cultures in which they flourish, but the influence flows both ways. In Canada, since religious and linguistic tensions were inseparable for much of our past, Christian churches, according to University of Lethbridge sociologist Reginald Bibby, have always been cautious, and careful to “play by the rules of diversity.” That means “not making excessive claims of uniqueness and not being overly aggressive in raiding each other’s ranks. This is not a country where Christians call other people ‘heathen,’ but they also cannot be ridiculed as ‘bigoted Bible-thumpers.’ ” Canada, it seems, is so pluralistic that even the Christians are pluralists.

That religious civility, and the decline in church attendance that began in all developed nations during the 1960s, has led the chattering classes—surely among the least devout of Canadians—to conclude that religion is inexorably fading out of national life. The sale, often for condominium projects, of numerous empty church buildings across the country, has only solidified that assumption. But as Bibby’s series of public opinion surveys shows, a funny thing happened on the way to an atheist Canada: rumours of Christianity’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Eighty-one per cent of Canadians believe in God, and twothirds of us that Jesus Christ is His divine son. Belief in angels, heaven and (to a lesser extent) hell, is almost as prevalent. Crunch Bibby’s 2005 numbers how you willbased on age, on weekly or monthly visits, on denomination—and the attendance decline not only levels off but shows a turn toward growth since 2000.

Helping to hide the evidence of decline before—and resurrection now— is the fact that our forms of devotion

have held remarkably steady since Confederation. Between Canada’s first census of 1871 and the 1951 count, the nation’s overall religious allegiance hardly budged; from there until the census of2001, Roman Catholicism held fast, “other world faiths” unsurprisingly grew from two to six per cent, and mainline Protestantism cratered—falling from 44 per cent of the population to 20 per cent.

3 /0 of Canadians

have attended a religious service in the past six months—not counting weddings, funerals or holidays


THE BRIGHT SIDE OF THE AFTERLIFE Believe in heaven Believe in hell

WHAT BRINGS US TOGETHER? Percentage of Canadians involved in: Religious groups 30% Sports or recreation 29% School or community 17% Political party or group 5%

But those lost sheep did not, as conventional wisdom expected, move even in part into conservative Protestantism, which has stayed at eight per cent since 1871. Instead, they

swelled the ranks of the No Religion group, from less than one per cent in both 1871 and 1951, to 16 per cent. In truth that number should be higher, given the collapse of churchgoing among Roman Catholics, especially in Quebec. But immigration from Catholic southern Europe and, more \ significantly, the tendency of lapsed Catholics—even those ? who have not darkened a church door in decades— to still describe themselves as Catholic, has kept the Church’s affiliation percentage stable.

Just as it was the decline in attendance among Catholics that drove down the national attendance rate, it is the recent 10 per cent increase in Catholic church-going outside Quebec that has seen those numbers turn around. The uptick makes Bibby think Canada could be in for a “significant revitalization of organized religion.” Especially since research indicates that perhaps two-thirds of the 16 per cent-strong No Religion group will “re-identify” with their birth faiths as they seek rites of passage relating to marriage, children, and death.

The big questions about life and death, suffering and meaning, have not gone away. Nor has the appeal of religion’s traditional answers. Canada’s mainstream Christian denominations have deep roots here and— witness the stubborn pledges of allegiance even as attendance plummeted—those brand loyalties are entrenched in our cultural DNA. Bibby is cautiously optimistic that the devout will remain a major element in the Canadian mosaic, so long as churches continue to provide—as they have in the past few years— the spiritual guidance their flocks want. And continue playing by the rules.

Keeping religion out of the public sphere remains crucial to keeping the peace between denominations, and more critically, between religious and secular. Among the more remarkable results in Bibby’s latest survey are the answers to one multi-part question. Pollsters asked respondents to imagine meeting a person about whom they know only a single “fact,” and then to choose one of three answers (at ease, a bit uneasy, very uneasy) to convey their immediate reaction to that per-

WHOM DO WE FEEL UNEASY AROUND? Sex offenders 96% Alcoholics 71% Former mental patients 63% Born-again Christians 31% Policemen 24% Muslims 18% Jews 5%

THE NUMBER OF CANADIANS WHO BELIEVE: Jesus is the son of God 66% Angels exist 62% I personally have experienced an event before it happened 52% God cares about me personally 65% We can have contact with the spirit world 46%

son. The descriptives ran the gamut from sex offender or drug addict (labels that brought the most negative responses—96 and 87 per cent of us, respectively, are at least somewhat uneasy in their presence), through former mental health patients and alcoholics, to ethno-cultural types:

Jews, Muslims, Aboriginals, black people and South Asians.

Racism, or at least its open expression to pollsters, seems to be as dead in Canada as can reasonably be expected. Only single-digit responses reported uneasiness with anyone’s ethnic heritage. Religion, however, was a very different matter. In a result that will seem, in the post-9/ll climate, both unsurprising and somewhat alarming, 18 per cent of | respondents are uneasy in the presence of a Muslim. But this is hardly evidence of the much-feared antiIslamic backlash. Canadians save their real suspicion for born-again Christians: 31 per cent of us are unhappy merely to meet one. (Jews, presumably viewed as more of an ethnic than a religious group, disturb only five per cent of Canadians.)

It’s hard to guess what images formed in respondents’ minds when they were given such stereotypical labels. In the case of born-again Christians, the current U.S. administration is so deeply unpopular here—among secular Canadians as much for its religiosity as its policies—that the image may well have been of President George W. Bush. That in itself would have been enough to spike the negative numbers upwards. But almost 80 per cent of Canadians, according to the 2001 census, identify themselves as Christian, and that means unease about bornagains comes from within the faith as well. It’s reasonable to conclude that some of the negative attitude toward fundamentalists, Christians and Muslims both, comes from hostility towards fire-and-brimstone religion. And that’s never more true than when people fear a political agenda: the proposed introduction of sharia law in Ontario, for instance, or restrictions on abortion or same-sex marriage.

“That 31 per cent number doesn’t sur-

prise me at all,” comments Rev. Mary Joseph, pastor of Pathways, a United Church-affiliated “progressive Christian community” open to anyone interested in the thought ^ and teachings of Jesus. “This is a fairly B religious country, with a huge Chuspa tian base. But many people resent

of Canadians identify with a religion or religious group. We attend services less often than Americans do, but more frequently than Europeans.

of all Canadians believe in

ESP, and 55% in psychic powers. A third believe we can communicate with the dead.

the element of judgment in fundamentalist churches.” A lot of it, Joseph concurs, flows from the same severe stance on sexual matters—abortion and homosexuality, divorce and remarriage, premarital sex and birth control—that did so much to empty the mainstream churches in the first place. But there’s another element as well, she adds: “People interested in alternative spiritual ways feel harshly judged and unwelcome too, like all those Christians who are interested in Buddhist meditation.” Bibby’s poll shows that Canadians do indeed embrace an array of spiritual beliefs alongside traditional articles of faith. A third of us believe in astrology, and more than half (57 per cent) are fairly sure ESP exists. Two-thirds think there’s life after death, more than believe in either heaven or hell. Slightly more than 31 per cent consider it likely that we can communicate with the dead, although 46 per cent think we can do so with the spirit world. It seems a glaring contradiction that the number of people who believe we can communicate with spirits is 50 per cent greater than those who think we can talk to the dead— especially since millions of Christians pray daily to saints, all of whom are dead. But it’s another intriguing glimpse into the national soul. Clearly there’s room for a wide, if often contradictory, variety of religious belief in this country. Just remember to keep it polite. M