The initial findings from the National Household Survey released Wednesday offer only skeletal findings with respect to religion. The unobtrusive treatment of the subject is apparent in the fact that one has to drill well down into the release in order to locate "Religion" under the subject heading, "Immigration and Ethnocultural Diversity in Canada."
There may well be more to come. But the initial treatment of the topic stands in sharp contrast to the major religion releases that have been part of census material in previous decades, complete with extensive trend analyses. The releases have understandably been greeted with controversy, and predictable proclamations of religion's demise – along with a wide range of emotional reactions.
This time no fanfare, no parades. Just the demographic facts, with cautionary statements about the new methodology involving voluntary participation in the survey. One also is informed that additional information about "religious practice" can be obtained through Statistics Canada's General Social Surveys.
Still, I want to suggest that, ironically, such treatment provides poignant data with respect to the current place of religion in Canadian lives and Canadian life, which in turn reflects growing recognition of the place of religion world-wide.
If we followed the scenario of a decade or so ago, we would have looked into the NHS data envelope on Wednesday and pulled out some interesting findings. Almost all the established groups, led by Roman Catholics and Mainline Protestants – including the United, Anglican, Lutheran, and Presbyterian churches – have been experiencing losses to their market share, while the "no religion" category has continued to chalk up healthy gains, especially among younger people. We would have heard people in the media and academia apply the well-worn secularization argument about societies like ours moving from pro-religion to no religion.
Not this time around. And perhaps for good reason. In 2013, we know better. Massive global surveys conducted by organizations like Gallup and Pew have thoroughly documented a consistent situation around the world. To varying degrees in every country on the planet, some people embrace religion, some reject it, and the balance constitute an ambivalent or indifferent middle, typically practicing what observers in France dubbed some time ago as "religion à la carte." What varies in all settings are the proportions of populations that exhibit such inclinations. The choices in one direction or the other ebb and flow, depending on any number of personal, cultural, and organizational factors.
As with previous census measures of religion in Canada, The National Household Survey has asked Canadians to indicate their religion, along with that of other household members ("What is the person's religion?"). This brief, single item probes the extent to which people identify with "a specific denomination or religion," with the important explicit qualifier, "even if this person is not currently a practising member of that group." It in no way attempts to probe things like participation or belief.
As such, the NHS offers two primary findings about religion in Canada. First, a majority of close to eight in ten Canadians (76 per cent) continue to identify with a religion, while a growing minority – now 24 per cent, up from 16 per cent in 2001 and 12 per cent in 1991 – do not. The dominant identification group continues to be Christianity (67 per cent) with the runaway leader Roman Catholicism (39 per cent). Canadians have hardly abandoned religion. Nevertheless, a growing number of people are living without it.
Second, for many, the religious group choices are changing. Immigration is contributing to the ongoing racial and ethnic diversification of both Roman Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism, as large numbers of people arrive from countries such as the Philippines and South Korea. Immigration has also been the primary source of growth for other major world faiths, who now comprise 7 per cent of Canada's population – up from 5 per cent in 2001. The slight increase has included Muslim growth from 2 per cent to 3 per cent over the past decade, with the latter numbers concentrated in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. A recent General Social Survey found that, between 2005 and 2010, 50 per cent of the people who came to Canada arrived as Catholics or Protestants, about 35 per cent as adherents of other major world faiths, and 15 per cent with no religion. Some 65,000 people identity with Aboriginal spirituality.
However, a number of mainline Protestant groups are experiencing significant declines in "market shares," primarily because of aging. For example, in 1931, 20 per cent of Canadians identified themselves as United and 16 per cent as Anglican. Today, according to the NHS, those figures have fallen to 6 per cent and 5 per cent, respectively. The primary problem for a denomination such as the United Church is not that people are mad at their leaders; it's that so many are dying and not being replaced through immigration and birth.
The NHS findings do not point to the demise of religion in Canada. No need to try to do that. But the findings document the tendency of Canadians to reflect the pattern of people across the planet in variously embracing or rejecting religion.
Consistent with the pervasive enshrinement of pluralism in virtually all areas of Canadian life, the latest family snapshot suggests that we have unprecedented freedom to opt for a growing range of religious expressions, as well as opt for religion-free lives.
Apart from providing more details, there's not much more to say.
Reginald W. 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 (2011).