Canada: Losing its religion?

In 2009 and the first part of 2010, I did a four-part series on Churches of Christ in Canada for The Christian Chronicle, reporting from Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver and a small town in Saskatchewan.

By the time I finished that series, I felt like I had met every Church of Christ member north of the 49th parallel. I am exaggerating, of course, but not by much: In the entire nation of 34 million people, our tiny little fellowship of believers counts roughly 150 congregations with 7,000 total members.

This was the headline on the first part of that series:

Canada: Struggle in a secular culture

This month, another newspaper ran a similar, even more dramatic headline:

Canada marching from religion to secularization

The source of that headline?:

A. Baptist Press.

B. The Anglican Journal

C. United Church News.

D. None of the above.

The correct answer would be D. The above headline came from the first part of a five-part series by The Globe and Mail, a leading national newspaper, on the "Future of Faith in Canada." The dramatic opening of the series:

Before 1971, less than 1 per cent of Canadians ticked the "no religion" box on national surveys. Two generations later, nearly a quarter of the population, or 23 per cent, say they aren't religious.

At a time of year when many Canadians traditionally turn to their faith, The Globe and Mail begins a look at the state of religion in Canada. What we've seen is a sea change in 40 years, a march toward secularization that mirrors what's happened in Europe.

A look at the youngest Canadians suggests the transformation is gathering pace. In 2002, 34 per cent of 15-29 year olds said religion was highly important to them. Data from Statistics Canada's 2009 General Social Survey show that number tumbling to 22 per cent.

Only the persistence of religious traditions among immigrants, whose religiosity has increased slightly over the past 25 years, has slowed the march away from our places of worship.

This demographic shift raises profound questions about our social values, about the fate of our cultural heritage, about institutions that once formed the bedrock our communities and about access to political power.

In general, I found the series -- which includes reports on young people's attitudes on faith, the crumbling state of churches in Quebec and elsewhere and the clergy shortage affecting all denominations in Canada -- both riveting and revealing.

The stories are tightly written, less than 5,000 words total for the entire series. The information is presented authoritatively in a "This is what we know (or think we know) and why it matters" fashion.

Paragraphs such as this certainly get right to the point:

Religious scholars see perhaps the majority of today's young Canadian adults as disappearing down a black hole of spiritual illiteracy from which institutional religion cannot retrieve them. The cause is also a product of young adults increasingly seeing organized religion as illogical and out of touch with reality.

From a different part of the series:

The crumbling state of the churches is a physical embodiment of the state of religious observance - and the phenomenon is hardly limited to Quebec. From British Columbia to Newfoundland, places of worship of all mainstream denominations are falling victim to dwindling attendance, rising land values and maintenance costs too onerous for congregations to bear.

The United Church, the largest Protestant denomination in Canada, closes one church a week, and has shuttered more than 400 in the past decade. The Anglican Church, which said in a report this year it was hemorrhaging members, has seen eight churches close on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands, and placed another six on a one-year watch list.

While I enjoyed the quick reads, though, I found myself wanting more details -- more context, more background, more voices to reflect and expound -- as I read certain sections of the series.

For instance, this one:

On matters such as homosexuality, the role of women, sex education and religious instruction, immigrant religious groups are embracing debates that pit them against the majority public opinion. In the Anglican Church, Chinese Canadians have been at the forefront of the split over homosexual unions. Presbyterians from Korea, Ghana and Trinidad have put a conservative stamp on a church that once was liberal. At a United Church conference in Toronto a couple of years ago, Korean pastors walked out when the organizers opened the gathering with an ecumenical Buddhist prayer.

And this one:

What attracts native-born Canadians to church these days, says religion sociologist David Seljak of St. Jerome's University in Waterloo, Ont., is the availability of parking, quality of preaching and children's programs, in that order. It's not doctrine or liturgy or biblical scripture - which strikes a melancholy note for next year's 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible. What some consider the greatest piece of literature in the English language is in danger of being forgotten with hardly anyone being aware that it's missing.

In the part of the series on young people, I was especially impressed with the "real people" sources quoted: a Sikh medical student who stopped wearing his turban and maintaining an uncut beard, a Roman Catholic student who quit the church, a Chinese-born student whose faith "combines Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism in a holistic mind-body spirituality with prayers to forebears."

Overall, however, the series seemed to lack many voices from actual people of faith -- native Canadians and immigrants alike. I think their voices -- and a better picture of their lives of faith in a secularized society -- would have added an important, relevant perspective.

I'm still digesting all the information in the series. There's a lot of meat and food for thought, and I certainly urge you to check it out.

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