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Janet Li is a familialist, which is a mix of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism in a holistic mind-body spirituality with prayers to forebears. (Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Janet Li is a familialist, which is a mix of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism in a holistic mind-body spirituality with prayers to forebears. (Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Part IV

Young increasingly shun religious institutions Add to ...

Editor's Note: This is the fourth part of the Future of Faith series.

If the future for institutional religion in Canada lies in the hearts and minds of the young, a dark night is sweeping down on the country's churches, synagogues and temples.

Young Canadians, who religious leaders once hoped would find their way back to faith, are instead doing the opposite: leading the country's march toward secularism. And with the exception of evangelical Christians, they are doing it at an accelerated pace.

More than half of Canadians in the 15-to-29 age cohort either have no religion or never attend a service of worship, says Statistics Canada. Only 22 per cent say religion is very important to them, down from 34 per cent in 2002. And in a recent poll done by Nanos Research for The Globe and Mail, just one in five of the under-30 age group say they are the generation of their family that attends weekly religious services.

The cause, on the one hand, is a product of a progression that began with the crash of religious attendance 50 years ago, with each succeeding generation becoming further removed from - and ignorant of - religious beliefs and practices. Religious scholars see perhaps the majority of today's young Canadian adults as disappearing down a black hole of spiritual illiteracy from which institutional religion cannot retrieve them. The cause is also a product of young adults increasingly seeing organized religion as illogical and out of touch with reality.

At first blush, changing demographics would seem to help offset the decline. But while the stream of devout immigrants from South and Southeast Asia - nearly a million every four years - has helped increase religiosity in the short term, the evidence suggests that this lasts only one generation, at best two.

Manveen Puri, 24, a second-year medical student from Mississauga, Ont., decided to discontinue wearing his turban and maintaining an uncut beard, both hallmarks of the Sikh identity, shortly after becoming an undergraduate student. His younger brother followed him shortly afterward.

Their close-knit family survived their decision. But Mr. Puri says his father, whose religion remains strong, wants to believe it's just a phase his sons are going through.

Initially, Mr. Puri stopped wearing his kara - the bracelet that is one of the five articles of his faith and that is worn to remind Sikhs of the morals of their religious teaching - but later put it back on because it's a symbol of his culture. For much the same reason, he still goes to the gurdwara with his family. But he adds: "I won't necessarily pray."

Mr. Puri, who was born in Singapore and moved to Canada with his family when he was 18, said he considered the elements of the Sikh faith one by one over what he called "a six-month struggle" and at the end concluded that he could not reconcile faith with his new rationalist beliefs. It was, he said, "sort of like waking up" and, afterwards, he felt relieved. He termed it a common experience among his Sikh friends, a number who hide their faith-alienation from their parents and others who have been angrily told to leave their family homes.

Ethicists like McGill University's Margaret Somerville lament the vanishing of religious morality from the public sphere on key public-policy issues involving life and death. Some sociologists cite the bowling-alone syndrome given celebrated currency by U.S. scholar Robert Putnam - the continuing fragmentation of collective life and its resulting individual unhappiness.

Jessica Page, a medical student from Victoria who labels herself a religious illiterate, admits to qualms about the cultural loss of religion. And other young Canadian adults interviewed for The Globe and Mail's series considered the meaning of cities and towns with empty churches and temples - architecturally beautiful but ever more marginal to society.

The conflict of religious faith and rational thought became no longer containable for Jonathan Bright, a 23-year-old law student at University of Toronto. Six months ago, he quit the Roman Catholic Church. He had kept his mother, a regular churchgoer, informed of the decision taking shape in his mind. Still, he acknowledges, "she was a little upset," as was his former girlfriend, a devout Catholic.

The final impetus for his decision was both a fresh series of priestly sex scandals and cover-ups in Europe and the force of logic. The constraints imposed by the church no longer made sense to him - on matters such as homosexuality, abortion and contraception. He saw ways to follow an ethical life through the teachings of the law that didn't require some necessary hierarchy.

For Chinese-born Janet Li, 22, a master's student in mathematics at U of T, culture, religion and identity have come together in her life through the spiritual practice of her parents, both software engineers.

The practice, known to sociologists of religion as Chinese familialism - it's not tracked by the census, likely a contributing factor to why British Columbia, with a large ethnic Chinese population, shows the lowest level of religious adherence outside Quebec - combines Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism in a holistic mind-body spirituality with prayers to forebears.

Ms. Li values her family rituals around a fireplace shrine. She likes the tradition. "They make you remember family. They bring the family together." But asked if she will continue them in her own adult life, she says, "I guess I only do them with my family, so I'll retain it as long as I gather with my family. Maybe my sister and I will continue together? I am not sure, that is very far down the road."

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