In Canada, secularism grows more pervasive

The New York Times, via The International Herald Tribune, Mar. 27, 2003
Clifford Krauss The New York Times
Thursday, March 27, 2003

MONTREAL The French-Canadian writer Yann Martel has acknowledged that he rearranged chapters in the Canadian edition of his new novel, “Life of Pi,” because he feared Canadians would be offended by its religious content.

“America is a very religious, almost puritanical country,” he told Publishers Weekly last year. “In Canada, secularism is triumphant, and to talk noncynically, nonironically about religion is strange.”

Martel’s comments have been much quoted recently as a sign that in at least one vital respect, Canadian and American societies are moving in opposite directions despite their common language and geographic proximity.

In a recent survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in Washington, only 30 percent of Canadians said religion was very important to them, compared with 59 percent of Americans.

Twenty-one percent of Canadians said they attended religious services regularly in another survey taken in 2000 – about half the rate for Americans, although still a bit higher than the rate for most of Western Europe.

The statistics would be far more skewed were it not for the growing number of Muslim, Sikh and Hindu immigrants to Canada.

In Martel’s city of Montreal, which is crowned by a giant illuminated cross atop Mount Royal, church attendance is plummeting so fast that at least 18 churches in the last three years have been abandoned or converted into condominiums and, in one case, even a pizza parlor. Meanwhile, rural churches are closing across the western prairies.

“This is a society where religion no longer wields cultural authority,” Marguerite Van Die, a theology professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, wrote recently.

In stark contrast with American presidents, Canadian prime ministers rarely, if ever, speak in religious terms. They even avoid being photographed attending church. It would be almost unthinkable for a prime minister to say “God Bless Canada.” It was only after former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s death that Canadians learned he was a devout Catholic.

Trudeau was a champion of keeping government out of the bedroom, and most Canadian politicians have followed that example. The few Canadian politicians who have raised abortion as an issue have suffered at the polls for doing so.

Though it has widened in recent years, Canadian scholars note, the divergence over religious content in Canadian and American societies goes back to different colonial pasts.

The Puritans who came to the New World in the 17th century as religious refugees never considered colonizing Canada’s eastern coast, because it was French and Roman Catholic. They went instead to Massachusetts, where their ideas of having a predestined and godly obligation to transmit their ideals to the world deeply influenced the American founding fathers.

“Religious rhetoric has played an important role in sanctifying major American political actions beginning with the War of Independence,” said Stephen Kent, a University of Alberta sociologist. Canada has never had a revolution or civil war or expansionist foreign policy, he noted, “so there was no need to sanctify major political events.”

Even before Canada was formed, the British saw the need to play down religion in the political sphere. They ceded the French colonists of the newly conquered New France (now Quebec) broader religious freedoms than even those available to Catholics living in Britain in the late 18th century. Otherwise, they would have risked rebellion or losing the territory to the Americans.

“Ever since, the way to deal with religion is to avoid it,” said David Marshall, a University of Calgary historian. “Because it is divisive, it is not part of our tradition.”

The one place in Canada where organized religion played as lasting and important a cultural role as it did in the United States was in Quebec, where the Roman Catholic Church ran schools, hospitals and otherwise set the moral tone until the “Quiet Revolution” of the 1960s. Quebec was then transformed by a generational shift in favor of sovereignty and freer social mores.

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