Sociologist Reginald Bibby is probably Canada’s closest observer of religious trends. He has been polling on religious practices and attitudes since 1975 and has placed the numbers into context in several books beginning with Fragmented Gods in 1987. Bibby has just released another book called Beyond the Gods and Back, and he spoke about it recently at an Anglican cathedral in Ottawa.
Bibby says that for many years he accepted the secularization thesis commonly proposed by most sociologists and researchers. In its most simple terms, Bibby says, “secularization refers to the decline in the influence of organized religion.” There are a variety of ways to track this situation but the one most often used is the frequency of attendance at religious services. Using Gallup Poll results from 1957, and later his own survey data, Bibby found that weekly church attendance in Canada fell precipitously among the population from 53% in 1957 to 24% in 1990.
Rational choice theory
Bibby has often expressed frustration that churches were not reaching out to those potentially receptive to their message. He used a “market model” or “rational choice theory” to make his point. He says there is a “constant demand” for religious responses to human needs centred on death and the meaning of life but “what varies is the supply side.”Â Secularization, according to rational choice theory, does not necessarily lead to the end of religion but rather it can stimulate innovation. Various religious “firms” (churches or sects) will rise or fall on the basis of whether they can adapt and provide the right religious product.
By the year 2000, Bibby believed that his polling showed that resurgence in religious participation might be occurring in Canada. Among teenagers, he found a modest increase in the number who said they attended services on a weekly basis. When he polled among adults later in 2000, he found that weekly attendance had slipped only modestly between 1990 and 2000. In other words the decline in attendance was slowing down, and among some groups, notably conservative Protestants, it was increasing. The “firms”, or at least some of them, were responding to the demand. He wrote about that in his book, Restless Gods, published in 2002, describing what he saw as “something of a renaissance of organized religion in Canada.”
Today, in the face of new polling research, Bibby says that to talk of a renaissance “might have been to exaggerate developments a bit.” His new phrase for describing what is happening in Canada is “religious polarization”. Bibby says that the number of people who never go to church (23% in 2005) is almost equal to the number of people who attend weekly (25%). In fact, he says that in the 2001 census, the number of people who said they have “no religion” (16%) was larger than those saying they belonged to any religious group, save for Catholics, who comprised 44% of the Canadian population.
Bibby says, “In probing participation trends, what we have failed to do is keep a close eye on everyone – not only the religiously active but those who are not particularly active or not active at all.” He also says that those saying they have “no religion” tend to be concentrated among younger Canadians. He concludes rather soberly that for the most part the “no religions” will not likely end up going to church.
Some religious groups have fared better than others. Catholics, whose numbers are being buoyed by immigration, are holding their own. Conservative Protestants have done a relatively good job in retaining their followers, including young people, but they are not growing rapidly. Mainline Protestants – the United Church, Anglicans and others – used to benefit from British emigration but that stream has dried up as Canada’s immigrant population now arrives from other continents. Bibby says the United Church and other mainline Protestant churches may soon be on “life support”.
Religious and non religious
Bibby says polling indicates that non-religious people appear to be as happy and fulfilled in their lives as those who are religious. But, significantly, he also says that religion does have a positive impact on what he calls “social compassion” or concern for others. This includes traits such as honesty, civility, forgiveness and generosity, including the donating of time and money to organizations and causes. “Those who are not religious do not lack for civility and compassion,” Bibby says. “But collectively they tend to lag slightly behind Canadians who are religious. To the extent that religion is making a contribution to social compassion in Canada, a decline in the proportion of people who embrace religion will be associated with a decline in the values and behaviour that make for social well-being.”
Bibby says that Canada’s experience with pluralism means that most people will tolerate religious polarization. But he cautions that it has the potential to test Canada’s “mosaic limits”. He is concerned about the tension between the religious and non-religious, and between some groups (Muslims perhaps or evangelicals) and everyone else. The debates over issues such as sexual orientation and abortion, for example, have been nasty. “On the religious side of things,” he writes, “when one believes that he or she has ‘seen’ or ‘heard’ the gods, such a sense of revelations carries with it a measure of authority and urgency. Conversely, the non-religious on looker can respond to faith claims with skepticism, cynicism or derision.” On that score, he is concerned by the fierce attacks upon religion by writers such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. He says they “have been treated as superstar celebrities” by the Canadian media.
Finally, Bibby says what has changed most for researchers is the ready availability of global data from organizations such as the Pew Research Centre and the World Values Survey. “For the first time in history,” he says, “we have data that allow us to look at religious developments in Canada in global perspective.” We know, for example, that in weekly attendance Canada (at 25-26%) resembles countries such as Ukraine and Germany. We are well behind the U.S. (43%) but well ahead of Sweden (17%). We know that that 99% of people in the Philippines, Pakistan, India, Iran and Iraq are believers in God and identify with a religion. Immigrants from those countries are most likely to be believers. We know that in Canada 78% of people hold a favourable opinion of Jews and 60% a favourable opinion of Muslims. In Pakistan, only 22% have a favourable opinion of Christians and a mere 5% have favourable opinion of Jews.
Bibby deals with the personal and some social dimensions of religion in his polling, but seldom with the explicitly political. But religious loyalties, or a lack of them, do have political implications. People who are religiously conservative tend to vote conservatively, and they have received close and sympathetic attention from the current government. The Conservatives also believe that recent immigrants tend to be more conservative than other Canadians, particularly on issues related to family matters and sexuality. That helps to explain why Jason Kenney and other Conservative politicians spend so much time in selected immigrant settings, including churches. Other political parties have noticed and are making efforts of their own to appeal to faith-based voters.
On the other side of the equation, the people who say they follow no religion tend not to support the Conservatives. There is political science research by McGill University’s Elizabeth Gidengil and others to indicate that the NDP draws a good deal of its support from these avowedly secular voters.
Catholicism is easily the largest religious and most diverse denomination in Canada – with almost 13 million adherents (5.9 million of them in Quebec) when last measured by a census in 2001. It is seldom discussed publicly but all political parties are aware of the importance of the Catholic vote. Catholics have traditionally tended to vote Liberal but other parties are challenging that hegemony in both Quebec and the rest of Canada.