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"Before 1971, less than 1 per cent of Canadians ticked the "no religion" box on national surveys," The Globe's Michael Valpy and Joe Friesen wrote in the opening article of their five-part series on the future of faith in Canada.

"Two generations later," Mr. Valpy and Mr. Friesen added, "nearly a quarter of the population, or 23 per cent, say they aren't religious."

"At a time of year when many Canadians traditionally turn to their faith, The Globe and Mail takes a look at the state of religion in Canada. What we've seen is a sea change in 40 years, a march toward secularization that mirrors what's happened in Europe.

"A look at the youngest Canadians suggests the transformation is gathering pace. In 2002, 34 per cent of 15-29 year olds said religion was highly important to them. Data from Statistics Canada's 2009 General Social Survey show that number tumbling to 22 per cent.

"Only the persistence of religious traditions among immigrants, whose religiosity has increased slightly over the past 25 years, has slowed the march away from our places of worship.

"This demographic shift raises profound questions about our social values, about the fate of our cultural heritage, about institutions that once formed the bedrock our communities and about access to political power."

In the series, The Globe wrote about some success stories, such as the "Highway to Heaven" in Richmond, B.C., but Mr. Valpy and Mr. Friesen also noted escalating problems across the country from abandoned churches in what was once-religious Quebec, to youth forsaking their parents' faith, to the shortage of clergy affecting all denominations.

What do you think of the situation?

Mr. Valpy and Mr. Friesen were online earlier to debate the issues and to take your questions. Join the conversation in the discussion area below.

Mobile readers can follow the discussion here.

Editor's Note: The following is a partially-edited transcript of the earlier discussion. Questions and answers have been grouped together for ease of reading.

Jim Sheppard: Welcome, Michael and Joe. Thanks for joining us today to take questions from the readers of about your series of articles on the Future of Faith. You've painted a vivid picture of the sweeping changes taking place across Canada. What surprised you most when you did your research for the series? What, if anything, did you find that you didn't expect to find?

Michael Valpy: Jim, that's a good question. Maybe the speed with which the numbers are dropping. This is a phenomenon that began in the 1960s, but in the last 10 years, maybe even five years, the downward slope has become 90 degrees.

Joe Friesen: I'm still surprised at how rapid the growth has been among those who say they have no religion. To go from less than one percent a little more than 40 years ago to nearly 25 per cent today is stunning. It's an absolutely fundamental shift. I'm also surprised by the immigration shift. About 25 years ago immigration contributed to the growth of atheism, today it's the opposite. Immigration is propping up our religiosity.

Joe Friesen: Another fascinating tidbit from the Nanos poll we commissioned is that the most religious (as measured by attendance at a religious service more than 10 times a month), are the least likely (after atheists of course) to say their faith influences their vote.

Reginald Bibby: A question for Valpy and Friesen: The vast majority of responses to the articles in this series have been highly critical of religion, with many overtly hostile. Given the growing polarization between those Canadians who value religion and those who do not, how do you like the chances of respectful co-existence being able to be part of our national mosaic in the future? Put another way, can religion and non-religion join other variables such as race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation in being at minimum tolerated by "both sides"?

Michael Valpy: Prof. Bibby, Welcome to the discussion. For those few people not familiar with you, you're one of the country's leading sociologists of religion, at University of Lethbridge. I'm not following your label of "overtly hostile". We've tried to tell the story

Michael Valpy: From the point of view of people leaving institutional religion -- what their feelings are, why they've quit their faith. I also don't agree with you about a growing polarization between people who value religion and those who don't. This is a country of diversity. We've been living with it since 1867 and before

Joe Friesen: Prof. Bibby, I think tolerance is possible, but I think it may become increasingly difficult to build understanding between those who believe and those who don't. The recent celebrity debate between Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair in Toronto was an exception, but listening to the conversations that surrounded it suggested to me that the atheists struggle to see the point of view of the believers. I'm inclined to think it will take a lot of work to bridge that gap in coming years.

G. Waugh: History shows us that over the past 2000 years, there have been highs and lows regarding true spirituality. It has often been during the lows that revival occurs and obviously we are ripe for revival throughout western society. [Do you agree?]

Michael Valpy: Possibly I agree. We may be in for another reformation in not only the Christian churches but in other faiths -- a reformation of relevance. Or as one religious friend told me a couple of years ago: "We're between narratives at the moment."

B.J.: Do you not find it strange that in a intelligent and rational society we allow people, who basically believe in make believe characters in the sky, to hold positions of authority in our society? In most situations where someone claims to be in contact with a higher power or hears voices we classify them as mentally unsound what makes religion any different?

Michael Valpy: Whoa! You're feeding into Prof. Bibby's scenario of no tolerance between religious and non-religious. People's belief in God is in many, many ways deeper than William Blake's Bearded Big Guy in the Sky. God may be a being, a force, a First Mover.

Derek: Do you think that people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are making atheism more accessible to people on the Internet? Do you think that it has some bearing on the sorts of changes in numbers that you are speaking of?

Joe Friesen: Derek, I think Dawkins and Hitchens have emboldened the atheists and provided arrows for their rhetorical quivers. I don't know that the Internet changes anything, except that it allows like-minded people to meet and discuss. It could be that those discussions are leading people away from faith, but in many cases the Internet is also leading people to faith, so I think it goes both ways.

Michael Valpy: I think people pay attention to Dawkins and Hitchens because they're celebrities. I don't think they're persuading anyone. Karen Armstrong, who is the most popular writer on religion in the English language, says both are banal debaters.

Guest: Re: K Armstrong's dismissal of Hitchens: I admire Armstrong but I find religionists often dismiss atheists rather than take the arguments seriously. Hitchens, at least, is anything but banal. I think atheism is actually the issue that the religious are least charitable. It may be understandable...but I wonder if you would agree?

Michael Valpy: I'm a big fan of Karen Armstrong and I think she's hugely knowledgeable -- and charitable. If she says Dawkins is banal on the subject, I'll believe her. I mean, it's so easy to be banal about God. [You just say:]"Show me what he looks like. You can't? OK, there's no God."

Guest: With respect to Ms. Armstrong, she is charitable but she is also deeply invested in religion (no fault there). Hitchens challenges all that (Dawkins really is banal) and I repeatedly find that atheist challenges are not considered, but rather dismissed. Calling someone banal is, well, uncharitable, and a way of not having to address their arguments. If both Dawkins and Hitchens are banal, is there some other atheist worth discussing...or are they all banal?

Michael Valpy: Dear Guest: Ms. Armstrong says they get their facts wrong. I think she meant "banal" in that sense. She really is a nice person.

Tony: 25 years ago, I would say Christianity was the religion at that time, immigration contributed to the growth of atheism and today immigration is contributing to the growth of all sorts of religion like Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism and Buddhism in Canada.

Joe Friesen: Tony, you're right. Immigration is contributing to the growth of Sikhism, Buddhism and Islam, but it's Catholicism that, if memory serves, is the biggest beneficiary.

Mike: Hi everybody. I was raised in a house not overly religious but we attended church weekly, I went to catholic school from Grade 1 to 13. But as a teenager, I began to part ways with organized religion. I'm not belittling people who have faith but just not in favour of organized religion. How much might this relate to it? And could this be directly related to all the negative news we've received over the past few decades? Dare I say it? Is the Internet and its ease of information-sharing to blame here?

Chas D: Why do we see religion only within a context of established religions. Can we as individuals create our own religion for our own use and support?

David Cooper: The question is problematic. I am Christian but would not say I'm religious, so the question has no meaning. They used to observe how old the people were in atheist Soviet Russia. They were young at the time of the revolution. Maybe religion has a steady supply of old people. It could mean that religion is on the way out or that people are slow to get smart. When Mr. Bibby first came along many churches got all excited and decided to play the market, the numbers game. I lived through that total waste of time. Strategic planning (gag) was the trend and the churches got so worried about size they forgot about who they were. To me such statistics are the last resort of the ineffective, like astrology.

TheCrofton: I trust we're not making the mistake of equating "not religious" with "not moral".

Bernie O'Neill: Why do you make a relation between religion and spirituality?

Student: I believe that the future of religion in Canada depends largely on whether the quality and ubiquity of education continues to rise, as well as on how extensive the scientific breakthroughs are in the future. For example, a German man has recently been "cured" of HIV using stem cells. As a geneticist, i know that this has always been easily obtainable by eliminating the CCR5 receptor, however ethics boards have recommended that stem cell research be illegal, due to its inherent dangers. Only a few hundred years ago, this disease would have been marketed by the church as a plague from God - a result of our sins. Education and science allows people to understand the facts, rather than believe whatever stories are instilled in them while they are young.

Paul Collins: I think this is a great discussion but I feel there is a huge difference between religion and spirituality. That being said, I strongly believe media is reading the public wrong. This generation is unconventional and more tolerant. In the last decade, I checked out the centers devoted to meditation, or transmeditation. Such centers create a sense of spirituality. In such environments I find corporate executives, accountants, small business persons, college & university students, and laborers. Do an article on those who attend 2) 3) 4) You will be surprised who you will see. I found the oldest church in Toronto, which is at Main and Danforth only has 20 people every week in their congregation. The church needs to get back to spirituality to get back this generation.

Michael Valpy: Mr. Collins, I've thought about this distinction between religion and spirituality and I don't think either is going anywhere in a big way. Spirituality is not grabbing young people in numbers. They have no time (the same as the rest of us)

Chas D: Why do some think that we have an 'intelligent and rational' society? This is a great misunderstanding.

Dave Scho: From my studies as a student of this issue, people are not necessarily become less religious, but the form of religion is changing. People are leaving churches or religious institutions, but people are developing their personal "religions" or "spiritualities". And people may call themselves not "religious" but the understanding of what qualifies as a religion is narrow. In addition, the secularization thesis, the idea that we are becoming a more secular society, is false as shown by a resurgence in religion after the 70s and the personalization of religion or development of "spirituality" where people may doing various spiritual practices and still call themselves not religious. Would any of you agree or disagree with this argument?

Michael Valpy: Mr. Scho, maybe people are developing "personal religion" -- who wouldn't, when he or she sees a child born or a flower open. But I don't see evidence of it being under any label.

Dave Scho: Mr. Valpy, just because it is unlabeled it doesn't mean it doesn't exist. If the survey which you discuss used different questions you would likely find people are involved in all sorts of practices or activities that sociologists of religion may define as religious. It was not until the 17th century when religion became a category. People prior, and many still today, didn't or don't understand themselves being part of a religion because the religious was inseparable from the rest of their life. It was infused and indistinguishable. But in the 17th century or so religion came to be seen as a "thing", something that somebody could put aside or pick up. Anyways, in short, many are engaged in religious practices and are religious without being aware of it, and trying to capture the extent to which Canadians are religious by asked them "are you? yes? no?" does not reveal the truth.

Michael Valpy: I don't think I'm disagreeing with you, Mr. Scho. We set out to measure religion. It's hard to talk about what's outside religion. In an earlier series for the Globe, I tried to explore spirituality. It doesn't explore easily.

Daniel: I love people that think God is make believe I've witnessed God miraceless power, I'm not Christian just because it was handed down to me. I'm a Christian because of God and God alone. He is the one who opened my eyes to the truth.

Bill: Speaking as a secular humanist, what can we do to show that you don't have to be religious to be a compassionate human being striving to be a good person? How can we avoid the generally disrespectful views of persons identified as atheists?

Michael Valpy: Bill, is this still an issue?

Joe Friesen: Bill, I think atheists are in the ascendancy. I don't think they need worry about appearing to lack compassion.

Bob: Joe, I disagree with your response to Bill. I'm an atheist and often distaste the intolerance shown by atheists of those who believe. However, those that do believe often paint atheists as immoral and uncompassionate which is very insulting to me. I may not believe in god but I know right from wrong.

Bill: I believe that atheists are still generally considered by the public as less-moral persons. For instance, politicians identified as atheists are considered as the least likely category that the public would vote for. Many of us are still "in the closet" even with family members.

Guest: Evangelicals are not dwindling. Any thoughts why?

Neil K.: Probably because they brainwash their children.

Michael Valpy: Religion scholars say Evangelicals are growing but they're not growing. Like Catholics, they're growing through immigration. They're also growing through marriage. And they seem to do better at keeping their kids in church. I don't know for how long.

George: I would agree that Evangelicalism is not growing, and would say it is on very shaky ground. Due to the marketing strategies of the church during the 90's the church has lost its centre and has followed postmodernism into its own individualistic faith. Immigrants are growing religion in Canada (mostly Islam, Sikhism and Buddhist) because they have not followed as far into Western thinking as the Christian church has, they are sticking more to there foundations of faith, which is what people want- something authentic, outside of themselves, to believe in.

Student: Does anyone know the statistic on the percentage of Canadians who convert to another religion and or become atheist? I have a feeling it is low, which would indicate that Canadians stick with one religion throughout their lifetime.

Michael Valpy: Hi, Student. I don't know the exact statistics. My colleague Joe Friesen is a better numbers man. But religion of parents is still the strongest driver of religious identity and there's not much crossover.

Joe Friesen: Student, according the poll we commissioned, 19 per cent of Canadian said they have a different religion than their parents. 75.5 per cent said it was the same. (5 per cent were unsure) People in BC were likeliest to switch, at 26.2 per cent. They were also more likely to vote for the Green Party.

Guest: How do you account for religion's strength in the USA?

Michael Valpy: Hi, Guest. Why is Canada closer to the Europeans than to the Americans in religious belief? There's a ton of theories. We're two different cultures is the short answer.

Guest: I am a liberal Christian but I believe strongly in secular democracy where no one religion has power or weight in any government policies. So I agree with atheists in how to live in society. Taxpayers should also NOT be paying for any religious schools.

Jordan: In what ways will society adapt to fill the roles that religion occupied in times past? Houses of worship often acted as community centres, with faith being the banner that held them together.

Michael Valpy: Jordan, you get the prize for the $64 question. I like the answer that "We're between narratives". We're between cosmologies. Maybe immigration will actually tip us back toward religion. Vacuums aren't tolerated, to there will be something.

Garrett: Interesting topic, The prologue to this discussion mentions the discussion between values and religion. Do you feel that are values and morals as a society suffer due to this drop in religion? I struggle to be believe that a person without religion is any less decent or sympathetic

MW: Promoting spirituality "might" help us all re: a recent government message that debt levels are too high. aka, you will not find peace & happiness in "stuff". I believe your previous research showed correlation between "religious" and "happy"

Michael Valpy: MW, we'd all be happier without stuff. The research on correlation between religion and happiness was misleading. The research showed religious group behaviour made people happy. It didn't say anything else about religion made people happy.

Jim Sheppard: Thanks, again, Michael and Joe, for a fascinating discussion. I'm sure our readers appreciated your insight and analysis. Any last thoughts on the issues raised today

Michael Valpy: I like the medical student who told me she was a religious illiterate but the disappearance of religion still gave her qualms. Bye, Jim. Thanks for great questions.

Joe Friesen: I hope any closeted atheists will be able to find acceptance this holiday season. Thanks to everyone for your questions.

Guest: Thank you, Joe Friesen, for a most considerate wish to atheists. If only children of the religious had a choice in the matter upon adulthood, there would be no closeting required.

Jim Sheppard: And thanks to our readers for their questions and comments. I'll post the remaining comments before we close the discussion.

B.J.: It is not about tolerance, it is about whether or not we as a society are going to allow those who have no proof of the existence of their chosen god to hold positions of authority in our society and allow their belief in unproven deities to have such influence in the policy of our country.

Bob: Why do we keep groveling to sentences like "we can be good without religion." Since when is it on those of us who are humane, decent and upstanding without any celestial surveillance to prove OUR morality? It's time to clarify the position: Believers must prove that they can be good WITH religion. Get it straight.

Raven: I think, with youth, the Internet and Facebook rates higher than religion. Facebook is the new community hall.

Guest: "Vacuums are not tolerated" - I agree with the guest who said that atheist arguments are not considered and dismissed as a ways to avoid entering into a genuine discussion, and this is another example of that. To what vacuum are you referring? My life is far from "empty" as you so dismissively suggest, in fact considering the right and wrong of every decision I make is a constant responsibility, requiring much thought and reflection on the nature of existence. Have you got anything better than "we'll get religion" because without it there's nothing? Or else I have better things to do this afternoon.

Ethen: I was raised in a religious home. I do find that many of my moral lessons were taught in the context of religion. Since this is my only growing-up experience, I can't speak for others, but for me religion was the medium for my moral training.

Christopher: Greetings, I am sorry to be so late to join the conversation. I really appreciated the comments made regarding the 400th Anniversary of the King James Bible. Your comments set the tone for the rest of your articles.

The State: Any given religion you ascribe to is an accident of birth as to what family/culture you were born into.

Jim Sheppard: Thanks again, everyone. A great debate. Please feel free to continue the conversation on the regular comments on this article page.

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