Reginald Bibby is a long-time and sympathetic observer of the religious scene in Canada.
Bibby’s reflections on the National Household Survey results released yesterday are balanced and insightful.
Bibby begins by reflecting on past religious trends and identifying the expectations these trends may have set up in many peoples’ minds.
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.
This of course has been the conventional wisdom for at least the past ten years. Religion we have been told over and over is dying. Canada is a secular nation; there is no longer any place for religious institutions; the sooner we get over our archaic attachment to outmoded religious dinosaurs, the better.
But, Reginald Bibby suggests the 2011 statistics gathered by StatsCan paint a different picture.
In 2013, we know better. . 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.
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.
That is about as much good news as it is polite to share in one column. So, Dr. Bibby goes on to puncture any ill-founded little hopeful balloon that might have been blown up for “mainline Protestant groups” by the NHS results.
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.
A drop in affiliation of 14% for the United Church and 11% for Anglicans is certainly not good news for either denomination. Combined with the fact that affiliation no longer translates into attendance to the degree it once did, the situation is challenging.
Looking at the Anglican situation Bruce Bryant-Scott on Facebook paints an even more dire picture. He claims that,
We have gone down from 6.9% of the population in 2001 to 5%, or a drop of self-identified Anglicans from 2,035,495 to 1,631,800, i.e. 404,695, or a loss of just under 20%. Of course, as Bruce Myers points out, the vast majority of these people in both years were folks who are not attending, and do not show up on our parish membership lists.
The realities of many peoples’ lives today, in a way that was less true 25 years ago, is that Sunday mornings are incredibly crowded. Attendance patterns are not what they used to be. There was a day when every Sunday attendance was a given. There are still a few people in my experience for whom Sunday simply means church, but their numbers are shrinking.
Increasingly Sunday now means, soccer, charity run, dance recital, shopping, beach walking, kite flying, or garden work. As the rest of the week becomes more and more crowded, the available hours for family time, relaxation, or catching up with the emails cluttering your inbox, are increasingly scarce. People who in the past have viewed weekly church attendance as a given part of their faith expression, now find themselves drifting into an every-other-week, once-a-month, occasional, or never pattern of attendance.
As Bibby points out the exploding range of Sunday morning choice has been hard on mainline Protestant denominations.
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.
But, numbers do not always tell the whole picture. I know that this coming Sunday, I will gather in church with a group of people who are deeply committed to their faith, who share in vibrant worship, and who desire to grow in their ability to share the love and compassion they experience in Christ. I will come away from this experience feeling encouraged and strengthened in my journey of faith.