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From left: Lorna Dueck, Vettivelu Nallainayagam, Michael Higgins, Howard Voss-Altman, Sheema Khan, moderator Guy Nicholson
From left: Lorna Dueck, Vettivelu Nallainayagam, Michael Higgins, Howard Voss-Altman, Sheema Khan, moderator Guy Nicholson

Faith Exchange

The future of religion in Canada Add to ...

This week, The Globe is publishing a five-part series of the future of faith in Canada. To coincide with that, our Comment Section today begins a monthly online panel discussion on religious issues. In their first meeting, the group discusses not just the current state of faith, but its future: What will faith look like in Canada 20 years from now?

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Here are today's participants:

Dr. Michael W. Higgins is the author and co-author of over a dozen books, a biographer, a CBC documentarist and currently the vice-president of Mission and Catholic identity at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.

Vettivelu Nallainayagam is an associate professor of economics at Mount Royal University. He is Hindu, originally from Sri Lanka, and has been in Canada since 1984. He has served as president of the Calgary Multicultural Centre and the Ethno-Cultural Council of Calgary, and has arranged multifaith panels to talk about religion to students in the residences at Mount Royal.

Lorna Dueck has been reporting on Christian practice in Canadian life for the past 20 years. She is an evangelical Christian and executive producer of Listen Up TV on Global TV, Sundays at 11 a.m. Eastern time.

Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman has been serving Temple B'nai Tikvah, Calgary's Reform Jewish congregation, for the past eight years. He is a community leader in the areas of human rights and civil liberties.

Sheema Khan writes a monthly column for The Globe and Mail. She has a master's degree in physics and a Ph.D in chemical physics from Harvard. She is the author of Of Hockey and Hijab: Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman.

Moderator Guy Nicholson edits The Globe and Mail's online Comment page. He professes no religious beliefs.

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Guy Nicholson: Thank you, panelists, for taking the time to join us - and, I hope, to enlighten us a little. This is a diverse group and I hope all our readers can take something from the conversation. I know I will.

We can all conjure up a sepia-toned image of Canadian faith in the past, and this week's coverage is intended to help us better understand what it looks like today. But what will it look like 20 years from now, a generation in the future? Undoubtedly, it will depend on your vantage point - whether you are Christian or Muslim, male or female, Albertan or Quebecker, immigrant or native born, devout or devoid of faith.

In broad strokes, from your own vantage points, what do you foresee, panelists?

Howard Voss-Altman: I think the biggest change in the next 20 years will be a profound shift in the way young people relate to organized religion. Young people are skeptical of joining or participating in institutions, preferring to network or socialize in virtual groups or more informal settings. The institutions of organized religion will continue to appear as outdated, bloated remnants of the past that do not represent the way our youth look at the world.

Young people, at least in liberal Judaism, want a much more individualized, personal experience that speaks directly to them, rather than a more corporate, group-oriented experience that synagogues are able to offer. Judaism has always survived on building networks and community. Our youth will not have been raised with those priorities.

Vettivelu Nallainayagam: Howard, I would hesitate to make such a broad statement. Not all young people are against organized religion. I know social networking can be a distraction, but when I see so many young people in Hindu temples and at interfaith meetings, I am convinced that they will accept the core values of our religions if presented in a manner that they can relate to.

Guy Nicholson: Howard, that's an interesting observation. Can organized religion adapt to that without compromising its core values?

Howard Voss-Altman: I can't speak for other faiths, but liberal Judaism will have a difficult time shifting its focus. The core value of Jewish life has always been the synergy between building community and building our identification as a "people." Today, young people do not have the same interest in "peoplehood." Instead, the individual revelatory experience - How does this impact me? - is a far more important priority.

Lorna Dueck: I would say yes, Guy - Christianity must adapt to youth without compromising its core values but Rabbi Howard is correct, we will have to get back to the core that was relational and transparent. The authoritarian structure that the church is still hanging on to won't work, but the flip side of that is that as you revert to a more grassroots democracy in church life, people will be called to different levels of participation and integration in the community. You won't be able to leave cohesion and teaching to the professionals, and that will require more lifestyle engagement at all ages. Picture a place of back-and-forth mentoring, providing and giving.

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