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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?

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.


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.

Michael Higgins: From a Roman Catholic point of view, the distancing of our youth from the communal and organic dimension of the faith is ruinous. Catholicism thrives on its sacramental and historical identity and in a post-modern deconstructionist universe, that is a hard sell.

Not a few of the chattering classes have pontificated on the imminent demise of religion and it hasn't quite happened; not a few of the commentariat have opined that religion will enjoy a renaissance in the 21st century and yet the examples of such a rebirth are hard to find.

What we do see, in Canada at least, is an ongoing struggle to define the role of religion in the public arena, as well as a normalization of the notion that one can be spiritual without being religious. Hence, the challenges attendant on the increasing marginalization of faith has to be the key challenge to the official religious bodies of the land. I think marginalization is the dominant trend for the next 20 years and can only be reversed through a deepening of the culture of faith as the most important constitutive element in human meaning.

Howard Voss-Altman: I think Michael's point is well taken. People often suggest to me that they are very "spiritual," but often have no substance behind that statement. They don't belong to a synagogue or church, they don't engage in an organized charitable project and they haven't been building stronger connections to the community. If religion is to have a relevant seat at the table, it is because of its engagement in the public arena. If our energy is going to be devoted to the individual, we will be increasingly seen as irrelevant.

Lorna Dueck: Regarding the initial question - I think Statistics Canada helps us make some predictions on the next 20 years. Regarding Christianity, they project that by 2031, Christian adherence in Canada will decline from 75 per cent to about 65 per cent. The next largest group by faith choice will be agnostics, those of no religion, and Statscan forecasts that number to rise from its current 17 per cent to 21 per cent.

What will emerge in the years prior is a Canada that tries to answer the questions: What is the value of religion? What is its place in our land? To determine that, I expect faith communities, especially my own, to be vigorously defining how faith is taught in home, school and public life. When Canada hosted the G8 World Religions Summit this summer, we saw a big picture of how that can roll out: a Christian chair in interfaith dialogue on the most pressing issues facing vulnerable people around the world - it was "love your neighbour" in action.

Sheema Khan: Very interesting observations by the panel. According to the Globe's recent in-depth look at multiculturalism and faith, Muslims are the fastest-growing religious group in Canada. They make up a little more than 2 per cent of the population, but that number is expected to grow to nearly 8 per cent by 2031. I believe we will see some of the same tensions and issues currently at play in Europe, with growing Muslim populations in a number of countries. These tensions will centre mostly around the issue of gender, as Muslim communities will have to address the inherent conflict between imported cultural practices and gender equality.

In addition, it seems that Muslim identity will continue to reverberate among young people, as many are affected by the daily barrage of media reports (mostly negative), and the search for identity that is commonplace among the young. Their struggle may perhaps reflect the struggles of the many Muslim communities throughout the country: how to define and develop a wholly indigenous "Canadian" Islam that reflects the Canadian ethos while retaining the core principles of the faith. I hope we'll see the emergence of more institutions such as Toronto's Noor Islamic Cultural Centre, which seeks to chart this path.

Vettivelu Nallainayagam: I can only speak from a Hindu perspective. I am of the view that faith will be strong among Hindus in Canada, even 20 years from now. There are many reasons for my conviction.

First, the pioneers among Hindus, those who came to Canada 30 or 40 years ago, have been active in organizing religious groups and building temples to remain close to their faith. I believe the impetus here is to hold on to something dear to them in a new environment. Although they have embraced Canadian values and institutions, their faith has remained strong in order to maintain their identity in a new society.

These recent arrivals have also been active in building Hindu temples, especially in Toronto, to stay close to their faith. I see such activities in many of Canada's major cities. They have also made it a point to inculcate their children about the main percepts of their faith and also get them to attend Hindu festivities in temples and homes.

Guy Nicholson: Nallai, this stands in contrast to Lorna's answer about Christianity - Hinduism being renewed through immigration. I wonder: Are the faiths brought to Canada by recent immigrants more immune from the kind of retreats we have seen in Christianity?

Howard Voss-Altman: The immigration question is, I believe, one of the keys to our conversation. As immigrant groups acculturate to Canadian (largely secular) values, the emphasis on religion and the customs of the "old country" naturally fade away. However, if the Hindu experience belies that trend, it may speak to an emphasis on traditional practices that continue to bring vitality to a younger generation. Perhaps in trying to find "contemporary rituals," we have sanitized our religious lives to the point of irrelevance.

Sheema Khan: I believe that, yes - they are more immune. Studies have shown that immigrants will cling more to their faith once they arrive here. The Globe piece on multiculturalism and faith also noted that the percentage of immigrants who are "religious" is higher than that of the overall Canadian population. In the Muslim community, religiosity depends on where immigrants come from and where they settle. In an extensive study by York University researchers, it seems that Iranian immigrants are quite secular, whereas Pakistani immigrants value their cultural and religious practices highly. There is also a "circle the wagon" issue, in that the more "attacks" on Islam are perceived through the media or other institutions, the greater the defence of the faith.

Having said the above, I believe that there will be increased spirituality, given the current onslaught of materialism in our society. Not to mention easy access to avenues of escape. (Alcohol, sex, gambling, etc.) I think we will reach a tipping point within the next 20 years, a retreat or backlash against these avenues and a search for deeper meaning.

Vettivelu Nallainayagam: I am not sure what you mean by contemporary rituals, Howard. Hindu faith is based on rituals that have deep moral and ethical meanings. They are meant to guide the adherents towards the righteous path, dedication to community service being an important part of it. It is important for us to understand that different religions approach their teaching in different ways and what is relevant is the end result, namely a society that is bound by certain ethical and moral values.

I agree that immigration will be an important factor in strengthening different religions in Canada. Newcomers will want to maintain a strong commitment to their faith in a new environment. Speaking for Hindus from India and Sri Lanka, their religious activities, including temple-building, are organized by ordinary individuals and not imposed by an authoritarian structure.

Lorna Dueck: Christianity will also be renewed by immigration - in fact, it will be a key factor that saves our faith from further demise in terms of numbers. With 46 per cent of Canada being foreign-born by 2031, you can be assured that the Christian explosion we've seen in the global South is going to be shaping urban churches in Canada. Whether these are ethnic churches or integrated ones remains to be seen; currently, these immigrants who are Protestant Christians are largely congregating in uni-ethnic settings. I hope that changes to multiethnic congregations, and from what I hear, the ethnic youth are pushing for that.

Howard Voss-Altman: Of course, Sheema, one can never underestimate the "circle the wagons" element in increasing group identification. The Jewish experience in North America was the strongest in the 1950s and 1960s, as North American Jews rallied together in response to the Holocaust and the outcome of the 1967 Six-Day War. However, no one wants to see religion thrive as a result of tragedies and attacks. We have been asking ourselves for two decades now: How do we maintain Jewish identification in a post-Holocaust, post-Israel generation, where threats of destruction no longer engage the community? We must find new ways of building community on religious grounds, and that is proving to be a challenge.

We also do not have the advantage of increased immigration - of any, really. Immigration provides both numbers and a renewed religiosity, and we don't have that possibility.

Michael Higgins: It is interesting to observe what is happening to the Catholic community in the United States, since some aspects of these "convulsions" will be felt in Canada. U.S. Catholics now constitute the largest single denomination in the country and lapsed Catholics the second-largest, with the predominant growth area being the "nones" (those who identify in surveys as having no religious affiliation). Dissatisfaction with institutional religion appears to be the key determinant for lapsation.

Guy Nicholson: That would suggest that it's not faith itself that is the issue for these people, but the way it's practised, is that correct, Michael?

Michael Higgins: In great measure, Guy, yes. For Catholicism, the greatest challenge is negotiating the appropriate parameters of engagement, adherence and personal spiritual integrity. How do you remain a committed Catholic in a shifting universe of opinion has become, for Canadian Catholics, the paramount question.

Lorna Dueck: Precisely - the way faith is practised has everything to do with its presence in community. For example, I wrestle with staying in my local church because it does not yet allow women to be part of church governance. I will never leave my faith, but I may leave an expression of it in community when I feel it is out of sync with core Christian faith. But since core Christian faith means you belong in community, I will find another place to worship God with others. This is why you've seen a burst of house churches in Canada, why Catholics drift over to Protestantism and the reverse. Orthodox Christians leave and join evangelicals, evangelicals join Orthodox churches; it's becoming an increasingly individualized search that has gone beyond authoritarian boundaries.

And Howard, your point on "spiritual but no substance behind it" points us back to protecting the core of our faith teaching; individualism is not part of our faith origins. Dignity and sacredness of person certainly is, but that's not the same as individualism.

Howard Voss-Altman: Lorna, when I meet with young people who are in the process of moving away, I have to remind them that should they move to a smaller city, or to a place where the Jewish community does not exist - most of non-urban Canada - it will be increasingly more difficult to remain Jewish. Our core identity is in a practising community, where interests, values and rituals are shared. As there is no concept of individual salvation in Judaism, we cannot find a sense of connection to God by ourselves. It is a covenant between God and the Jewish people - not the Jewish individual. Sadly, such communal experiences are not embraced by most Jewish people today.

Lorna Dueck: I like that Howard - where Christianity suffers is when it isolates its doctrine of individual salvation, and then our faith practice gets diminished, and even distorted to justify abuses.

Howard Voss-Altman: It seems that many young people I meet who wish to convert from Christianity to Judaism often tell me this. They find comfort and meaning in the communal religious experience of Judaism.

Guy Nicholson: Howard, this is not a particularly optimistic scene you're painting. How does a religious community find its next generation of leaders in circumstances like these?

Howard Voss-Altman: Our community finds its leaders through religious and cultural transmission. It is going to be dependent on parents and grandparents who are willing and able to engage their children and grandchildren not only in home ceremonies (Passover seder, Hanukkah, Sabbath dinners), but in actively participating in synagogue life. Usually, when young people have positive memories of family rituals, it translates into synagogue membership and attendance. Commitment and leadership in Judaism is largely generational, and is inspired over many years of practice.

We have also enjoyed a tremendous spur for growth in conversion. We often see conversion (from interfaith marriage) leading to increased religiosity and family commitment. As the non-Jewish spouse (who becomes Jewish) finds meaning and identity in the conversion process, he or she stimulates the family to become more involved with the synagogue. For those who convert, the synagogue becomes the symbol of Jewish life, and their desire to make it a place of meaning for them has transformed liberal Jewish life.

Guy Nicholson: The Globe's Michael Valpy wrote an article in October about a religious contradiction among Quebeckers, in which they have incredibly strong traditional ties to Catholicism but little true religious belief. Is this type of strictly cultural attachment not better than no affiliation at all, from the standpoint of a religion's leadership - doesn't it at least provide a base for further engagement?

Howard Voss-Altman: I didn't see the article, but I think the Jewish experience speaks to a similar reality. I think Judaism has survived primarily because of a cultural attachment - food, books, music, art, politics, etc. - that keeps them "proud" to be Jewish. After all, their Jewish heritage is a significant part of their identity. We are both a people and a religion. But, these largely secular Jews have virtually no impact on "Judaism" the religion. Sure, it provides a base for further engagement. The problem is that the base is only energized by external threats to our survival. And nobody wants religious engagement around catastrophe.

Michael Higgins: Michael Valpy was correct about Quebec Catholicism and I suspect that scenario will be replayed with a Hibernian flavour soon. But in one sense, that is not a bad thing -a residual yet still meaningfully cultural attachment to the faith may be a tenuous link, but it is a link. Look at France.

Guy Nicholson: Lorna mentioned the trend toward "house churches." This question of where you worship must be particularly vexing for traditional religious leadership. So many resources have gone into creating places of awe-inspiring communal worship - places where many people get their introduction to faith. And now churches are redeveloped into condos while people worship more at home. Is something irretrievable being lost? I'm not religious - I'm more the kind of person who would buy that condo - but even I feel like I've gained something from the temples, mosques and churches I've visited.

Lorna Dueck: Speaking from a Christian perspective, I too think it's tragic to see church buildings being sold off in the numbers they are. It is nothing less than a retreat of goodness and love in the land. Yes, something is being lost when those majestic churches get sold or sit empty. For all the hurt that has happened from traditional religious leadership (and we can never apologize enough for that), we must dig back in and hold to the core of our teaching that we belong together, and we must revive common gathering places where we teach what it is to be Christian, what it is to practise love for all, regardless if they are of any faith or none.

Howard Voss-Altman: Awe-inspiring places encourage people to walk through the door, at least ideally. But if people are unable to make a connection - with each other or with the rituals being practised - they will walk out the door and not come back. If there is any future in religious life, it is that there will eventually be a backlash away from "virtual" communities and a return to old-fashioned, non-screen, human connections.

Vettivelu Nallainayagam: A temple is an important institution for Hindus to worship and I recall a Tamil proverb: "Do not stay in a city that does not have a temple." Although I am not a regular temple-goer, I see the value in going to a temple to worship and practise one's faith. The atmosphere in a temple cannot be recreated at home.

Michael Higgins: I agree. For Catholics, the centrality of the mass underscores the critical role of the community of faith. Being Catholic necessitates community. Common places of worship define and give expression to that experience of communion.

Although it is true that many of the majestic churches in downtown Toronto are experiencing their own conversion into condos, most of the inner city Catholic churches are full. In great measure, this is immigration-specific, but a thirst for a traditionalist spirituality is also a spur.

Howard Voss-Altman: Doesn't this raise the question: If traditional religious practices and attendance are largely immigration-specific, shouldn't we be asking ourselves the question of why second-, third- and fourth-generation Canadians are no longer actively worshipping?

Lorna Dueck: I think third- and fourth-generation Canadians are no longer actively worshipping because they have disengaged through materialism. Once we emerged from the postwar years, we had money and flexibility to go to the cottage, play hockey, party late, do a hobby or work another shift on Saturday mass or Sunday-morning service. As adults drifted from that weekly time of faith teaching, it became harder to convince the kids to go to church. It's easy to lose active worship. You'd be surprised at how many of those fourth-generation Canadians are watching church TV in Canada, wishing their grandkids understood faith.

Guy Nicholson: We're out of time today. Thank you all so much for stopping in to chat - I'm looking forward to talking again next month.

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