Vancouver Sun's Douglas Todd channels religion beat into nones, spirituality and migration

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When you’re Canada’s top religion writer and you’ve been on the beat for umpteen years and you want to take religion reporting in one of the continent’s most beautiful cities in a new direction, what do you do?

You become a “spirituality and diversity columnist.”

You start a blog called “The Search” that is described thusly: “Douglas Todd delves into topics we’re taught to avoid: religion, ethnicity, politics, sex and ethics.”

The Vancouver Sun’s erstwhile religion writer has showed up at many a Religion Newswriters Association meeting to spirit off some top award for his stylish prose chronicling the spiritual side of British Columbia’s largest city. In recent years, his work has taken an unusual turn because of the multifaith direction of this metropolis sounded by water and mountains. A May 8, 2013, article on the city explains more:

Metro Vancouver and the rest of B.C. break a lot of records when it comes to religion and the lack thereof.
The West Coast is a place of extremes in regards to Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and the religiously unaffiliated, according to a major 2011 survey by Statistics Canada.
New data released Wednesday suggests pluralistic B.C. is traveling in several religious directions at once. Many residents are becoming more devout following a great variety of world faiths. But other residents are endorsing secular world views and drifting into private spirituality.
This region of 2.3 million people now has the fewest inhabitants of any major Canadian metropolitan area who call themselves Christian, according to the National Household Survey, which is Statistics Canada’s first major measurement of national religiosity since 2001.
Only 41 per cent of Metro residents are Christian, compared to a national average of 67 per cent. B.C. has the fewest Christians on average of any province or territory.
Even while the city has grown in population, the total number of Christians in Metro has actually dropped by four per cent in the past decade, to 950,000.

Then, you knew this was coming, there is the trend that has received oceans of ink in the past three years. Can you say Pew Forum and the "nones"?

More than 41 per cent of Metro Vancouver residents, or 945,000 people, told Statistics Canada they have no religion.
That is a far higher proportion than in any other major city in Canada -- or, for that matter, North America…
However, there is another group that makes Metro Vancouver stand out -- its Sikh population, which is growing faster than any other. The total Sikh population of Metro Vancouver has mushroomed by almost 60 per cent since 2001.
Among the 455,000 Sikhs in Canada, 44 per cent live in B.C. Metro Vancouver alone has 156,000 Sikhs, comprising 6.8 per cent of the city’s population. B.C. is the only province in Canada, and one of the few jurisdictions in the world, in which Sikhism can claim the status of being the second largest religion.

The Sikh presence was something I saw on my drive to Alaska last summer via the Alaska-Canadian (AlCan) Highway. I was zooming through Prince George, a city in the middle of BC, when I saw a gurdwara, which is a Sikh temple. One doesn’t drive by those every day, so I swung around the Subaru, pulled over and snapped the photo you see with this article. (Sikhs began flowing into western Canada in the early 20th century to work the lumber camps, saw mills, railroad construction, salmon canneries, fruit orchards and cattle farms).

The article goes on to say how Buddhists, Muslims and other religions are growing in Vancouver, thanks to immigration mostly from Asia. Christians make up 47 percent of recent immigrants, followed by those with no affiliation (20 percent), followed by increasing amounts of Eastern religions.

How do you cover this salad bowl of faiths? When I emailed Doug about this, he said his beat also includes migration, psychology, philosophy and men’s issues. He added that his perception of the region was much affected by research for his 2008 book Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia, about the irreligious-but-spiritual Pacific Northwest. He got more interested in writing about its more secular residents.

When I asked him about meat-and-potatoes religion coverage -- which Vancouver undeniably still has -- he said no one’s doing that sort of coverage at the Sun anymore. Nor are they in many papers across Canada, which experienced many of the same downsizing as did their U.S. counterparts.

That’s the one part of this narrative that's sad. It’s fine for Doug’s editors to re-configure his beat to go after the fast-growing “nones” demographic, but then not to have anyone cover the business of religion in this large city? Doug gets a lot of material into his blog but would the Sun have resassigned the paper’s sole business or sports reporter with no one to take up the slack? I’m guessing his editors figured that the meat-and-potatoes stuff was material the public -- or at least themselves -- no longer cared about and thought it was time to put one of their most talented writers on a beat that better reflected the current zeitgeist.

He still does do articles for the print edition, many of which come out on Saturdays. His most recent blogs on Argentina talk about the city where Pope Francis was born and portray Latin America’s top religion reporters. He’s also recently blogged on a female Canadian/Pakistani blogger who opposes niqabs and how the United Church of Canada fears it’s too white.

It's the kind of writing many beat religion reporters wish they  had the time to do. His evolution reminds me of how Krista Tippett's "Speaking of Faith" radio show morphed into the vaguer "On Being" in 2013.  The show began tackling "questions at the center of human life" and, it says on its site, "We pursue wisdom and moral imagination as much as knowledge; we esteem nuance and poetry as much as fact." All very well and good, but is it still journalism?

Doug Todd won't be anywhere near as woo-woo as Krista but his new emphases say a lot about how the religion beat is shifting. As the culture has avoided dogma and certainty, the beat has morphed from religion, "faith and values" and "beliefs" to spirituality and questions. At some point the call to worship becomes a mirror and what was once about people of God becomes only about us.

PHOTO: From Shutterstock

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