Some recent events illustrate the puzzling place of religion in Canadian life: A team of American academics declares that religion is on its way to extinction "up here" - just before 10 million people participate in Easter and Passover celebrations. Atheist signs make their latest appearance on buses in the Okanagan, about the same time as a Toronto media personality proclaims in a new book that "Catholics are right" about pretty much everything. Meantime, a federal election campaign inches toward a May 2 finish line, with scarcely a word spoken about religion.
After spending almost four decades monitoring religious developments in Canada, I think I've finally figured things out. But that's for you to decide. A favourite sociologist of mine, Howard Becker, once said that a basic test of sound research is that people should be able to recognize themselves in the things we write about them.
For years, almost everyone has assumed that religion in Canada has been in a participation free fall. In the mid-1940s, our national weekly attendance level of 60 per cent was higher than that of the United States. When it dipped to 25 per cent in the mid-1980s, many felt it was en route to European-like levels of under 10 per cent.
Actually, that active core of 20 per cent to 25 per cent has not changed very much. The participation losses of mainline Protestants and Quebec Catholics have been offset by the gains of Catholics elsewhere, evangelical Protestants, and other groups, led by Muslims.
But things are not the same. Occasional attenders are evolving into non-attenders. For every person who attends weekly, there's a person who never darkens the proverbial church door. The trend is particularly blatant among teenagers. In the mid-1980s, close to one in four attended weekly, similar to now. But the proportion of teens who never attend has doubled since then, from one in four to two in four. Such attendance trends are part of a pattern that also can be seen in religious identification and belief data.
These mixed findings about the stability and decline of religion are best summed up as polarization rather than relentless secularization. Simultaneously, the percentage of Canadians who value religion remains sizable and stable, while growing numbers are living life without the gods. Such polarization is most pronounced in British Columbia, followed by Ontario and Alberta. It is least evident in the Atlantic region, along with Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Quebeckers lead the nation in their inclination to opt for religion à la carte - neither embracing nor rejecting it.
The important question that arises from all this is the "so what?" question. If the nation is becoming increasingly polarized religiously, what are the implications - if any - for personal and collective life?
For starters, the good news is that our pervasive ideal of pluralism appears to be encompassing both religious and non-religious inclinations. This side of the law, co-existence is prevailing. Relative to many other parts of the world, that's not a bad start.
My analyses show that overall levels of personal well-being are similar for those who are religious and those who are not. Faith enhances life for some people, but others find personal and relational fulfilment through other pathways. Spirituality, some say, calls for religion. Our findings question such an assertion. Spiritual needs are conceptualized and addressed in highly diverse ways. Religion is important for many but, as we all know, large numbers of Canadians are spiritual but not religious.
The research does suggest, however, that growing polarization will produce two casualties. First, while people obviously can be "good without God," belief in God helps. Religion typically tries to instill interpersonal values such as compassion, honesty, civility and forgiveness. In its absence, we will need to find some effective functional options. Second, religion frequently provides people with a unique sense of hope as they confront death. To the extent Canadians say goodbye to the gods, most will say goodbye to such hope - an admirable decision if the gods are an illusion, an unnecessary and costly choice if the reverse is true.
Reginald Bibby holds the Board of Governors Research Chair in sociology at the University of Lethbridge. His latest book is Beyond the Gods & Back: Religion's Demise and Rise and Why It Matters .