Canadians are increasingly becoming ambivalent about religion or rejecting it outright, but people across the religion spectrum admire the pope, according to an Angus Reid Institute study released before Easter.
The online survey of 3,041 Canadians divided respondents into three categories: 30 per cent are inclined to embrace religion, 26 per cent are inclined to reject religion, but the biggest group is 44 per cent who are ambivalent.
Although enthusiasm for religion is declining, the numbers indicate that religion is far from stamped out in the Great White North, said Angus Reid Institute chair Angus Reid.
“Don’t feel alone. Don’t feel like you’re some kind of outcast or weirdo or whatever,” Reid said. “Hey, there’s a lot of people out there who do that (embrace faith).”
As for that big ambivalent chunk of the Canadian population, it’s a glass half full as far as Reid can see.
“There’s this big group of the mushy middle, ambivalent Canadians. They’re very big,” he said. “It tells those on the religious side there’s a lot of room for evangelization.”
But one area of consensus revolves around the man millions call “papa.” Pope Francis has an incredibly positive rating from all categories of Canadians. Three quarters of Canadians think “Pope Francis is having a positive impact on the world. Even 63 per cent of those inclined to reject religion like what they hear from Pope Francis, while 81 per cent of those who embrace religion approve of the pope.
“Francis has understood that the nature of religion in modern society has changed. He has geared his papacy toward that change,” said David Seljak, a sociologist of religion at Waterloo, Ont.’s St. Jerome’s University. “His pastoral method is one of dialogue rather than pronouncement. The important thing to understand is that Francis has these incredible approval numbers, but he hasn’t changed any substantial Catholic teaching.”
Among those who find Pope Francis “such a breath of fresh air” is Canadian Secular Alliance spokesperson Justin Trottier, an atheist.
“There is something different about this pope compared to many of the popes who have preceded him,” Trottier said.
It doesn’t surprise Trottier that even people who reject religion are embracing Francis.
“Even atheists, even non-religious people or religious people who are not Catholic do have an interest in who is sitting in the papacy,” he said. “Because of the influence that that individual holds.”
Overall, the survey paints a very different picture of belief in Canada than a survey might have found 50 years ago, said Seljak.
“Canada used to be one of the most vibrant and dynamic Christian countries in the 1960s in the western world,” said Seljak. “Religion in Canada has become middle aged — you know, a bit mushy in the middle. Clearly we could use some toning up.”
Enormous social changes over the past 50 years — social mobility between classes, job mobility, geographic mobility that has stretched families from one end of the country to the other, the sexual revolution and the growth of consumer culture — has left institutional religion responding to a very different reality,
“I don’t think religious suppliers, i.e. the churches, the synagogues and the mosques are doing anything particularly wrong,” Seljak said. “What you have is a profound sea change in the type of society we’re living in. Secularization is one of the side effects of that enormous change.”
Some churches and religious institutions are doing a better job than others of reaching out to people, “and some of them have their heads in the sand,” but the core issue is not a marketing problem as far as Seljak is concerned. In a world in which personal autonomy, choice and informed consent rules every other aspect of life, religious leaders can’t assume religious affiliation translates into doctrinal, dogmatic or communal loyalty.
“Bishops can make whatever pronouncements they want, but even the people in the pews aren’t listening,” Seljak said. “Even their most loyal followers are deciding for themselves.”
In the age of personal autonomy, paternalism is doomed, he said.
“We are living in an age of post-paternalism. People are deciding their spiritual path for themselves,” said Seljak.
Rejection of religious institutions and authority has led to a split between religion and spirituality in the minds of many Canadians. The Angus Reid study found that 39 per cent of us think of ourselves as “spiritual but not religious,” compared to 24 per cent in the “spiritual and religious” category. Twenty-seven per cent said they are “neither religious nor spiritual.”
“In a perfect world, religion and spirituality should be interconnected, actually even inseparable,” said Julius-Kei Kato, King’s University College professor of religious studies. “Religion and spirituality considered in their authentic meanings are two inseparable things.”
The problem is the negative connotations religion has taken on.
“For many people in the western world, religion has unfortunately been associated with a narrow-minded, outdated, irrelevant, hypocritical, backward-looking or reactionary, even bigoted and mean general attitude,” Kei wrote in an email to The Catholic Register. “It is often equated with an institution that embodies most or all of those negative qualities.”
On the other hand, spirituality has become “cool,” said Kei.
“It has come to mean a profound search for one’s deepest and most authentic core or an inspiring quest for something greater than oneself that would fulfil one’s deepest longing — in short, all the good, genuine and profound efforts to touch the ultimate,” he said.
Looking into the religious sentiments of Canadians is important because of the Christian base Canada has in its history, said Trottier. Laws and customs in Canada still assume Christian or some other kind of belief and often privilege Christian institutions, he said.
“If the trendlines continue there may come a point where a majority of Canadians are no longer religious,” Trottier said. “When that happens, I don’t think we will want to see a situation where we switch from favouring religion to favouring atheism. Which is why I believe in a neutrality, in a secularism under which neither religion nor atheism is favoured. Those who embrace religion would do well to look at the direction things are going in and realize they may become the minority sooner rather than later. Let’s put in place policies now that defend all minority points of view.”
The Angus Reid Institute is not the Angus Reid polling company, but a separate, non-profit foundation set up by Reid to conduct non-partisan, public interest research. Reid tapped University of Lethbridge sociologist Reginald Bibby to help design the survey questions.
The survey on religion and faith was conducted between March 4 and 11 and asked questions of 3,041 Canadians who had pre-opted into the online panel. It then weighted their answers to correspond to Canada’s national profile in terms of geography, language, sex and other factors.
The institute considers its results accurate 19 times out of 20 to within plus or minus 1.8 percentage points.
New research from the Angus Reid Institute divides Canadians into three broad religious categories — 30 per cent of us are inclined to embrace religion, 26 per cent are inclined to reject, and 44 per cent are somewhere in between. Here are some highlights from the research released March 26:
— The largest pool of people inclined to embrace religion is found among Catholics. Roman Catholics made up 44 per cent of those inclined to embrace religion.
— Nearly half (43 per cent) of Canadians feel “a bit uncomfortable around people who are religiously devout.” A quarter of those inclined to embrace religion feel this way and 63 per cent of those inclined to reject religion are uncomfortable around the devout.
— Turn it around and only 22 per cent of Canadians are uncomfortable around “people who have no use for religion.” That number rises to 41 per cent for those inclined to embrace religion, but even six per cent of those inclined to reject religion say the religion rejectionists make them uncomfortable.
— Nearly a quarter of Canadians (23 per cent) attend religious services at least once a month. That number includes five per cent of those who are inclined to reject religion, 11 per cent of the mushy middle who are ambivalent about religion and 56 per cent of those inclined to embrace religion.
— Even nine per cent of those who reject religion say they sometimes experience God’s presence. About a third of Canadians in total say they experience God’s presence, including 68 per cent of those who embrace religion.
— Those who attend church, mosque or synagogue do not report a decline in their congregations. Seventy-seven per cent of the religiously involved say their congregations are either growing or stable.
— The new Angus Reid numbers show a decline in the percentage of Canadians who are religiously committed. Research by sociologist of religion Reginald Bibby showed 45 per cent of Canadians thought of themselves as religiously committed in 1985, compared to 30 per cent in the most recent study.
— A third of Canadians feel guilty about not being more involved in religion, including more than 22 per cent of those inclined to reject religion. More than half (53 per cent) of those who embrace religion feel guilty about their level of involvement.
— Canadians love Pope Francis. Three quarters of us believe the pope is having a positive effect in the world — an opinion that extends to 63 per cent of those inclined to reject religion.
— But Pope Francis is an exception when it comes to authority figures. Only 29 per cent of Canadians claim a high level of confidence in religious leaders. That number rises to 61 per cent among those inclined to embrace religion, but stands at just six per cent of those inclined to reject religion and only 21 per cent of those ambivalent about religion.
— The largest group of Canadians class themselves as “spiritual but not religious” at 39 per cent. That compares with 24 per cent who call themselves “spiritual and religious,” 10 per cent who claim to be “religious but not spiritual,” and 27 per cent who opt out of both categories.
— More than half of Canadians (51 per cent) believe “What’s right or wrong is a matter of personal opinion.” That includes 40 per cent of those who are inclined to embrace religion, rises to 55 per cent of those who reject religion, but is highest at 57 per cent of the ambivalent middle.