Canadians losing their religion

Canadian Press, May 13, 2003

OTTAWA (CP) – A growing number of Canadians are losing their religion.

In fact, 4.8 million Canadians, 16 per cent of the population, declared themselves as having no religion, Statistics Canada reported Tuesday in the latest and final reportPDF file to come from the 2001 census.

That’s roughly the same number of Canadians that identified themselves as Anglican and United Church combined.

A decade ago only 12 per cent of Canadians said they had no religion. The increase represents a staggering 44 per cent jump.

“It may be that they don’t attend. It may be that they are atheists or agnostics and don’t want to write that down. It could mean anything,” Jane Badets, an analyst with Statistics Canada said Tuesday. “But it’s pretty consistently increasing .n.n. so obviously people identify with it in some way.”

Globally, Canadians are on par with those in the U.K., as the last census in Britain found 16 per cent of the population had no religion. However it would appear that Canadians are more religious than people in New Zealand, where 30 per cent of the population claimed no religion.

While seven out of 10 Canadians identified themselves as Roman Catholic or Protestant in 2001, the increase in the proportion of Canadians with no religion as well as the substantial increases in religions such as Hindu, Sikh and Buddhism illustrate Canada’s growing diversity.

Out of the 1.8 million immigrants who came to Canada between 1991 and 2001, one-fifth reported they had no religion, especially those coming from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Ken Ryan is one of the growing number of Canadians that have no religion. While he was brought up Anglican, he always had a fascination with mythology and other religions. After studying anthropology, he lost his faith.

“I don’t see any reason to believe in religion,” said Ryan, who lives in Orangeville, Ont., about an hour northwest of Toronto.

“The problem is I don’t like it. I’d prefer to have religion, but I can’t lie,” said the 39-year-old lab technician.

“I think faith is a great comfort to people and I think it would be really nice to have it . . . but either you do or you don’t. And I don’t.”

While some see the new census numbers as a signal the country is becoming increasingly secularized, others aren’t convinced.

“(It’s) a very, very unstable category,” said Reginald Bibby, author of Restless Gods: The Renaissance of Religion in Canada.

Bibby researched mixed marriages and found that when someone with no religion marries someone with a religion, the children are often raised with religion.

“In the case of Protestants, Catholics and Jews the common pattern is for the kids then to be raised as a something rather than as a nothing. So the no religion thing doesn’t sustain itself over time.”

Bibby, a professor of sociology at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, said those in this group tend to be younger.

Also many Canadians with no religion are people whose parents identified with Protestant or Catholic faith. More often that not, he said, these people don’t continue through life with no religion.

Coming back to religion “seems to be directly tied with getting older, having children and needing the rites of passage carried out. Then they tend to revert back to the religion of their parents,” he said.

Michael FitzPatrick, an Ottawa father of two children aged seven and 11, was raised Catholic. His partner was also raised Catholic and their children attend Catholic school, as he wanted them to have a taste of spirituality. His son sings in the church choir. However, he doesn’t consider himself to be Catholic and while he can’t remember how he answered the religion question on the last census, he knows he didn’t check off Roman Catholic.

“What’s the difference between Catholic and Anglican? . . . King Henry VIII,” said FitzPatrick. “I don’t know there is any one religion that is right and I certainly don’t know enough to say that any of them is wrong.

“You can have faith without religion.”

Almost 40 per cent of those with no religion were aged 24 and under, Statistics Canada reported. Yukon had the highest proportion, 37 per cent, reporting no religion, followed by B.C. with 35 per cent. Newfoundland and Labrador had the lowest – 2.5 per cent – reporting no religion.

Father Pat O’Dea, executive director and pastor at the Newman Centre Catholic Mission at the University of Toronto, said that many young people take time off from organized religion.

“It’s often a time when people need to search. Young people are often looking for meaning,” said O’Dea, who added that before he became a priest he left the Church for some time and then found his way back.

“It’s not only a time when people want to know ‘what is God’, they also want answers to ‘who am I?’ “

O’Dea thinks society should look at such searches as evidence of courage and that they should be supported, not negated.

Still, the census shows the majority of Canadians remain Roman Catholic or Protestant.

“For all the options out there, Canadians seem to be incredibly reluctant to actually abandon these conventional religious identifications that they have,” said Bibby.

Roman Catholic was still the largest religious group in 2001 with 12.8 million worshipers or 43 per cent of the population, down two percentage points from a decade earlier. While the proportion of Roman Catholics decreased, the actual numbers increased. Roman Catholics accounted for 23 per cent of immigrants to Canada in the past decade, the highest proportion for any religion among the newcomers.

Just under half Canada’s Roman Catholics live in Quebec; they accounted for 83 per cent of the province’s population. Catholics were also the majority in New Brunswick, with 54 per cent. British Columbia, with 17 per cent, had the lowest proportion of Catholics.

Some 8.7 million Canadians identified themselves as Protestants, Canada’s second largest religious group at 29 per cent. Their numbers were down from 35 per cent in 1991, continuing a diminishing Protestant trend.

For more than 100 years in Canada, Protestants outnumbered Roman Catholics. In 1901, Protestants made up 56 per cent of the population, while Roman Catholics comprised 42 per cent.

In 1971, Catholics, at 47 per cent of the population, outnumbered Protestants (44 per cent) for the first time.

The biggest recent decline was among Presbyterians. Their numbers in 2001 were down 36 per cent from 1991 to 409,800.

The census collects information on religious affiliation, regardless of whether respondents actually practise their religion. Attendance of religious services, surveyed by Statistics Canada since 1986, has fallen dramatically over the past 15 years.

While both Roman Catholics and Protestants saw their relative proportions diminish, the census reported an increase – more than double – in those identifying themselves as Christian without identifying a particular faith, as well as Born-again and Evangelical. The Christian faith made up 2.6 per cent of the population.

Even though Greek and Ukrainian Orthodox suffered declines in the 1990s, the Christian Orthodox faiths saw a 24 per cent increase through gains in the Serbian and Russian Orthodox religions. In 2001, they represented 1.6 per cent of the population.

O’Dea is well aware that the numbers attending Catholic, as well as Protestant, churches are not as high as they once were.

“My view is there are always people wandering back and if they feel a sense of welcome, they’ll stay.”

He said it’s the Church’s obligation, not so much to draw in new members, but to concentrate on those who already attend and make youth feel not so far removed from religion.

“There are a lot of distractions for young people today and it’s a great challenge to make faith meaningful.”

While the number of Jews in Canada increased 3.7 per cent, the proportion – 1.1 per cent of the population – is unchanged from 1991. More than half the Jewish population lives in Ontario.

Rabbi Yosef Wosk, director of the interdiscipline program in continuing studies at Simon Fraser University, said there may be several reasons why the Jewish population has remained constant.

Some people might identify themselves as culturally Jewish but don’t practise, so they may not have listed their faith on the census. Some want to fit in with the majority, and still others who survived the Holocaust simply “don’t want to be on another list.”

While Catholics, Protestants and Jews aren’t enjoying an increase in proportion, other religions are experiencing significant growth.

The number of Muslims in Canada doubled to 579,600 in the past decade. They now represent 2.0 per cent of the population, up from just under one per cent. Muslims accounted for 15 per cent of immigrants to Canada this past decade. Sixty-one per cent of Canadian Muslims live in Ontario.

There was an 84 per cent increase in Buddhists, who now number 300,345. Five per cent of immigrants to Canada between 1991 and 2001 were Buddhists.

The Hindu and Sikh faith each increased by 89 per cent.

Seven per cent of the past decades’ new immigrants were Hindus. Most of Canada’s 297,200 Hindus live in Ontario.

Nearly half of the Canadian Sikh population, 278,400 strong, lives in B.C. Five per cent of immigrants between 1991 and 2001 were Sikh.

While these religions are experiencing a surge in proportions, largely due to immigration, Bibby points out that they still represent small numbers.

When these children grow up, they have to pick mates from a small number of people.

“For all the efforts of parents and all the taboos on inter-faith marriages, kids from these religions can choose from maybe three per cent of the population, while Catholic kids have close to 50 per cent of the population.

“They will probably end up marrying outside their religion.”

Bibby’s research found that when people from religions other than Catholic, Protestant and the Jewish faith marry Catholics, Protestants or Jews, children are raised Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or with no religion.


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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday May 14, 2003.
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