2013 “The Changing Landscape of Religion in Canada
Part One: A Brief History of the “No Religion” Category in the Canadian Census
Part Two: 1965 – A Turning Point”
pages 257-275 in:
2013 Triumph of Hope
Ottawa School of Theology and Spirituality, Ottawa.
The Changing Landscape of Religion in Canada
Part One: A Brief History of the “No Religion” Category in the Canadian Census The Ottawa Lay School of Theology, established in 1963, celebrates its 50th anniversary as the Ottawa School of Theology and Spirituality. The name change symbolizes some of the shift in the religious and spiritual landscape of Canada in the past 50 years.
In 1963, it seemed reasonable to assume that most people belonged to one of the world religions, and that most adults in Ottawa looking for a religious education alternative would be “lay people” interested in “theology.” Today “SBNR” is a commonly used category, especially to identify young adults – “Spiritual But Not Religious.” Another significant population category, found in the Canadian Census throughout the Twentieth Century, is “No Religion.” The growth in the number of Canadians self-identifying in this way is another indicator of the overall change.
The broad picture of religion and change in Canada is widely known: the decline in participation rates, the decline in power, and the separation of religion and public life. These headings sum to a general concept of secularization.
Participation rates? – Most of the largest religious organizations in mid-twentieth-century Canada report a decline in attendance and membership statistics.
Decline in power? – Governments, the media and the public are less concerned about public statements by religious leaders and organizations. For example, the United Church held its national General Council in Ottawa in 2012 for the first time since 1958. In 1958, the Prime Minister requested opportunity to address the Council (and was granted it). In 2012, the government of Canada and media mostly ignored the event.
Separation of religion and public life? – Throughout the 1980s, a series of court decisions removed prayer and worship from public school systems. Increasingly, one’s religious values have been widely perceived as a private matter, not related to public policy. In the summer of 2012, Nicole Eaton, a Conservative member of the Canadian Senate, spoke on the CBC’s “As It Happens” against church involvement in political issues, and found support in the media and public opinion.
Statistics Canada and the Census are convenient sources for measuring some of the change. Since 1871, the decennial censuses have collected information about religious affiliation, providing a series of “snapshots” taken every 10 years. The Census is a blunt instrument, as data collection goes – not at all subtle or sensitive to nuance. It records self-reported affiliation without measuring the strength of religious beliefs and practices. It may be, for example, that an Anglican in one Census self-identifies in terms of the church he attends, but 10 years later is referring to the church he doesn’t attend.
When I was working with census data for the United Church in the 1970s, we were aware of a 4:1 ratio in the mainline denominations. Roman Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian and United Church census statistics were each about four times the denomination’s own statistics for membership or participation. For example, about 4 million Canadians self-identified as United Church in the 1971 Census, but the denomination’s own statistic was about 990,000 members.
Another problem with the Census is that the question has changed over the decades, and has encouraged responses in different ways. This essay serves to record those changes in a brief summary.
1. From 1871 to 1961 the data collection instrument provided a write-in space.
2. In 1951 and 1961, pre-printed names of some religions were also provided, each with a mark-in box. Changing a question from “open ended” (a blank space, no list of anticipated responses) to “closed category” (a list of options, usually including “Other”) changes the value of longitudinal study. When the question or data-collection technique is changed, the power to compare over time is reduced.
3. Enumerators collected the data until 1961.
4. In 1971 the 20% sample for the “Long Form” (including the Religion question) was introduced.
5. So was self-reporting, called “self-enumeration.”
6. In 1971 a list of religions, printed in alphabetical order, was included, followed by a mark-in circle for “No religion.” This was the first time that it was easy and convenient to respond “No Religion.” The percentage of “No Religion” respondents was 0.5% in 1961, 4.3% in 1971.
7. A printed instruction was added, "Please give a specific denomination, if possible, even if you do not attend a place of worship. For infants and young children, report the religion in which they are being brought up."
8. The 1981 Census did not change the question, but it did change the list of pre-printed names of religions to choose from in two ways – the items on the list and their order. The largest 1971 populations headed the list; and the “No Religion” response was at the end:
What is your religion?
Mark one box only
* Roman Catholic
* United Church
* Greek Orthodox
* Ukrainian Orthodox
* Jehovah’s Witnesses
* Salvation Army
* No Religion
* Other, specify _________
9. Until 1981, the question was, “What is your religion?” In 1991, this was changed so that one member of a household would respond for everyone living at that address, “What is this person’s religion?” This gave one adult the opportunity to represent several people, including children.
10. In 1991, it was made even easier to choose the “No Religion” category. The format was changed to make it one of two options instead of several, and an attractive alternative, not requiring a write-in or any thought:
What is this person’s religion?
Indicate a specific denomination or religion even if
this person is not currently a practicing member of that group.
Specify one denomination or
____ No Religion
11. In 1991 and 2001, a list of suggested responses was intended to help with the “write-in” option; but the list was changed for 2001. Compare the two:
For example, Roman Catholic, For example, Roman Catholic,
Ukrainian Catholic, United Church, Ukrainian Catholic, United Church,
The Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Salvation Army options were removed. Mainline denominations were declining in membership, 1991-2001; but the Presbyterian statistic leaps out:
1991 2001 % decline,
(millions) (millions) 1991-2001
Anglican 2.2 2.0 - 7.0%
United Church 3.1 2.8 - 8.2%
Presbyterian 0.6 0.4 - 35.6%.
The Presbyterian statistics, more precisely, were 636,295 in 1991, 409,830 in 2001. To what extent did the change in the data collection instrument contribute to the statistical change?
There is a public impression that Pentecostals and Jehovah’s Witnesses are successful in their aggressive recruiting. There is a public perception that the Salvation Army is a successful religious organization. The 2001 Census data do not support these impressions, but the fact that these groups were listed in 1991 and omitted from the list in 2001 raises problematic questions. The Census data say that from 1991 to 2001, the Pentecostal population in Canada declined from 436,435 to 369,475 (-15.3%); the Salvation Army statistic declined from 112,345 to 87,785 (-21.9%); Jehovah's Witnesses declined from 168,375 to 154,745 (-8.1%).
Clearly, there are problems with these data: the question has changed over the decades; the list of suggested possible answers has changed; the response space has given emphasis to the No Religion option since 1991.
When Statistics Canada released the 2001 Census data related to Religion in Canada, CTV headlined their story: "Canadians losing their religion: StatsCan." Other media were more precise in describing the information in terms of a decline in affiliation with formal and traditional religious organizations.
Nevertheless, the longitudinal trends are clear. In every Census since 1971, there has been a decline in the number of Canadians who identify with the mainline Protestant denominations. In every Census since 1961, an increasing percentage of Canadians have responded "No Religion" –
2001 16.2% (4,796,325 people)
Who are the 4, 796,325 Canadians who responded “No Religion” in 2001? Many of them are new Canadians, and they are a younger group than the Canadian population as a whole.
New Canadians? Sociologists and government officials speak of “Old Source” and “New Source” immigration when they discuss the Canadian population. One dynamic has not changed in the history of the country going back to 1867: Canada is a population of new Canadians. In all the censuses over the decades, there has been a consistent reporting that a little more than 20% of the population was born in another country, and a little more than 20% of the population has at least one parent not born in Canada. In other words, 40 to 45% of the Canadian population has always been comprised of people who have come to Canada and their children. This dynamic has not changed. The change has taken place in the identity of the countries-of-origin (“source countries”), and this has resulted in profound change in the ethnic, cultural and religious diversity of Canada. “Old Source” immigrants came from the British Isles and western Europe. On arrival in Canada, they might look for a Roman Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian or Lutheran Church. They might discover The United Church of Canada and get involved. That changed around 1980. In the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, the following populations have approximately doubled each decade: the population of Muslim Canadians, Sikhs in Canada, Hindus, and Buddhists. By 2001, there were more Muslims in Canada than Presbyterians: 579,640 to 409,830, according to the Census. Since then, the Presbyterian population has declined, and the Muslim population has exceeded one million.
Before 1961, about 40% of immigrants to Canada were Protestant Christian, about 0.2% were Muslim. In the 90s, 10.7% were Protestant and 15% were Muslim. But more significantly, in terms of the “No Religion” category, new Canadians were arriving in larger numbers from Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, formerly communist countries, and countries where it was not safe to be known as religious generally or a member of a particular religion (for example, Baha’i in Iran). Large numbers of new Canadians were people who would be uncomfortable telling a government about their religious affiliation or practice. This shows up in the “No Religion” category:
percentage of Canadians self-identifying as having “No Religion”
new Canadians all Canadians in Census year
arriving pre-1961 11.0 0.5 1961
1961-1970 13.5 4.3 1971
1971-1980 16.5 7.4 1981
1981-1990 17.3 12.4 1991
1991-2000 21.3 16.2 2001
In 1961, most of the “No Religion” respondents were new Canadians. To some extent, Canada has been importing the “No Religion” variable ever since.
The Chinese-Canadian population is especially significant in any conversation about the “No Religion” population in Canada. In Bramadat and Seljak’s anthology, Religion and Ethnicity in Canada (2005), David Chuenyan Lai, Jordan Paper and Li Chuang Paper help explain the fact that in the 2001 Census, 58.6% of the population who identified themselves as Chinese also identified themselves as having “No Religion.”
“As in many languages, there was no equivalent word for “religion” in Chinese,” they write (Lai, Paper and Paper, 2005: 109). “Chinese religion is indistinguishable from the essential characteristics of Chinese culture” (page 93). Chinese family life may include rituals performed by Daoist priests and Buddhist monks or nuns, hired for the purpose. As the Ecumenical Chaplain at Carleton University in Ottawa for 10 years (1999-2009), I would be asked by Chinese students to do their weddings. I would explain that I only performed weddings that were Christian worship services, and they would say that that was fine, “We want a Canadian wedding.” Sometimes we would get into deep conversations about their spirituality and mine, and they always emphasized that they wanted me to express my religious convictions in their wedding. However they celebrated their weddings, the couple’s married life might include a family altar and a number of sacred images in the home, daily offerings and rituals, ancestor worship, health and medical practices that are essentially spiritual rather than scientific.
Jordan Paper and Li Chuang Paper surveyed individuals in Vancouver and Toronto who were buying “packets of spirit-money and other offerings to the dead of the family and to deities, and various furnishings for altars in family homes.” They reported, “We have found that if Chinese Canadians purchasing these religious paraphernalia are asked what their religion is, most will respond with ‘none’ or ‘the Chinese don’t have a religion’” (Lai, Paper and Paper, 2005: 89).
The “No Religion” respondents are also younger than the Canadian population as a whole:
percentage of Canadian population and “No Religion” respondents
Canadians under 45 (0-44 in Statistics Canada categories) comprised 63.4% of the national population but 74.3% of the No Religion population. Canadians 55 and older comprised 21.8% of the national population but only 12.5% of the No Religion respondents. Here are the same data using more categories for the age variable:
percentage of Canadian population and “No Religion” respondents
by Age Groups, Canada 2001
Total Population No Religion
% Canadian pop % “NR” respondents
0-14 19.4 23.1
15-24 13.5 16.2
25-44 30.5 35.0
45-54 14.9 13.2
55-64 9.6 6.3
65+ 12.2 6.2
Finally, it can also be said that the “No Religion” category is a regional variable. Sometimes variables overlap to exaggerate effects: British Columbia has a younger, more Asian population than Atlantic Canada with more new Canadians. The “No Religion” population is the 2001 Census comprised 35.9% of the British Columbian population and was the most frequently chosen category in that province. (The largest “religious group” in British Columbia is the “No Religion” group!). In Newfoundland, only 2.5% of the population self-identified as “No Religion, 6.7% in Prince Edward Island, 8.0% in New Brunswick. Generally, the “No Religion variable increases from East to West, from rural to urban, from more established populations to populations with higher numbers of new Canadians.
What to make of all this? The growth in the “No Religion” population in Canadian censuses since 1961 is related to a general decline in traditional religious organizations, immigration patterns, and modernity. New Canadians are drawn from source populations that are not Protestant, often not Christian, and often officially not religious. Young adult Canadians have been raised within a popular culture and (for the most part) a public education culture of modernity that values individualism over collectivity, tolerance over standards, science over religion, rights over responsibilities, and material over spiritual. It is not all about "the failure" of the churches.
The population of people identified as having "No Religion" is certainly full of very spiritual people on personal journeys of faith and belief. Many are seekers. Many will become respected, ethical leaders in our society. some may become religious leaders. They live in relationship to an understanding of the sacred and to other people of faith and other people of good will. They are interested in what the Church says and does. They may sometimes ally themselves with efforts of the Church. They may support churches. Peter Emberley met many of them, as he reports in Divine Hunger (2002). Reg Bibby suggests that they are an evangelical opportunity for congregations and denominations who can offer purposeful roles for them to play and substantive conversation about the meaning of human existence, the critical issues of our time, and other matters of ultimate concern (Restless Gods, 2002). He may be right.
My own research from 2009 to 2012, “Listening to The Echo” (Sherwood, 2012b) has given voice to young adults who self-identify as “Not Religious.” The following communication was from a young woman in her mid-20s, completing an undergraduate university program:
The idea of spirituality speaks more to me than organized religion does.
The idea of believing in something personal, rather than having someone
tell me what there is to believe in, makes me more inclined to being
spiritual rather than religious.
I respect the fact that, for many people, religion is a method of lifting their
spirit and bringing a sense of peace. I prefer to bring peace upon myself
through personal reflection. Reflecting upon my mistakes and learning
from them will make me a stronger, more intuitive person. Self- improvement
through personal exploration is what I strive to achieve.
Being a spiritual person means that I am aware of my actions and their effect on myself and others. I take responsibility for my happiness; I do not feel the need to attend a church service to put my spirit in a good place. (Sherwood, 2012a: 75).
In fact, most of the statements collected in this research are as positive about the individual’s spiritual journey as they are negative about institutional religion. They are full of energy and hope, and they speak for a generation – or at least for some members of the Echo generation – who are living spiritual lives, committed to ethical engagement in their society, hoping to make a positive difference in the world.
After Donna Casey of the Ottawa Sun interviewed me in 2003 about the newly-released information on religion in Canada from the 2001 Census, she paraphrased me (accurately) in her coverage: "However, that citizens report no religious affiliation doesn't mean they aren't religious or spiritual…"
To me, the 2001 Census snapshot looks like the Mediterranean world of the New Testament Church. It looks like the Book of Acts. The scenes in the narrative of events in the early church look like our society: pluralist, secular, multifaith, minority Christians unsure how to be the Church, unsure how to spread the Word, unsure who to include in the mission and in the family.
Peter L. Berger famously equated secularism and pluralism in his influential The Sacred Canopy – “It is just as possible to say that pluralism produces secularization as it is to say that secularization produces pluralism” (Berger, 1967: 154). He picked up this theme again in The Heretical Imperative pointing out that “heresy” and “choice” are related concepts, and that “modern consciousness entails a movement from fate to choice” (Berger, 1978: 11).
No one in human history has had as many choices to make as a contemporary Canadian young adult: high school options, postsecondary education, lifestyle, leisure activities, sexual expression. We no longer live in a society in which the younger generation reproduces the culture of the previous one. Children do not automatically go into their parents’ occupations or businesses, religions or lifestyles. They make their own decisions.
In 1994, responding to the 1991 Census information, I wrote:
Not only is Canadian society becoming more spiritually diverse,
as indicated by the religion variable in the Census; there is increasing
diversity within the individual world religions. Christianity is far
from the monolithic theological and organizational structure that it
once was. Judaism is far more diverse than it has ever been, and is now
discussed in terms of its own denominations. Moreover, there is now
a large number of people who declare that their spiritualities have no
formal affiliations or organizations. The Canadian Census categorizes
this sizable proportion of the Canadian population as having no religion;
and yet Bibby’s research finds high levels of religious belief and spirituality.
It is not that these people have no religion. Rather no religion has
them (Sherwood, 1994: 352).
“It is not that these people have no religion. Rather no religion has them.” That may describe the Canadian social context of the Ottawa School of theology and Spirituality as it observes its 50th anniversary.
Part Two: “1965” It isn’t as notorious as 9/11, Y2K, or Orwell’s 1984; but 1965 can be seen as a turning point in the history of religion in Canada, the critical turning point.
The year began with the publication of Pierre Berton’s The Comfortable Pew as a unique sort of Lenten study book. The Anglican Church commissioned it, asking an agnostic, former Anglican to look critically at the church and write about what he saw. With a sense that the author was respected as a keen social observer with integrity, and that the approach was timely, McClelland & Stewart ordered a first printing of 16,000 copies. Sales of 5000 constituted a best seller in the Canadian book trade at the time. Released on January 23rd, the book went into a fifth printing before the end of February and sold over 175,000 copies in Canada, another 113,000 copies published by Lippincott in the United States – more than any other book Berton would ever write.
It was a sensation.
Even before it was published, sermons were preached against it, and the media began covering the response. Macleans, the Star Weekly, CBC radio and television, CTV and other media provided invaluable free publicity. Hugh Shaw of Weekend Magazine wrote, “The Comfortable Pew is getting to be the biggest thing in church literature since the Gutenberg Bible.” In his biography of Berton, Carleton University historian Brian McKillop summarizes the content:
Berton insisted that church leaders wake up to the new attitudes toward
questions of chastity, premarital sex, birth control, and divorce. He took
the church establishment to task for its complacent portrayal of Christ and
for its lack of welcome to the noncomformist in pew or pulpit… He wished
to see a church that would revolutionize society and revolutionize itself
(McKillop, 2008: 431).
In his history of the Christian Church in Canada, John Webster Grant described A Comfortable Pew as an “attack on complacency… the existing state of the church” (Grant, 1972: 195-6).
Berton’s book was quickly followed by Brief to the Bishops – a collection of essays by Canadian Roman Catholics expressing what they would want to say to Vatican II if they had a voice – and Why the Sea is Boiling Hot – a United Church anthology of essays by six “critical but not hostile” outsiders, including Berton, June Callwood, Arnold Edinborough and Eric Nicol.
The subtitle of Brief to the Bishops was Canadian Catholic Laymen Speak Their Minds. One of the “laymen” was Janet Somerville, addressing the status of women in church and society. Another was Mark R. MacGuigan (a University of Toronto law professor then, Minister of Justice in the early 1980s under Trudeau), addressing the issue of political freedom for Catholics. This had been a prominent issue in the United States just five years earlier when John F. Kennedy ran for president. Kennedy had needed to state publicly that, as president, he would not be following directives from the papacy.
These two books from United Church and Roman Catholic writers offered general support to Berton’s main theme that the institutional church was out of touch with the contemporary social context. For example, in his essay in Why the Sea is Boiling Hot, Berton himself damned the United Church with faint praise:
The United Church, especially, likes to boast that it was one of the first churches
to endorse modern birth control measures – and so it was. Among the churches
it was a leader; in society at large it was a follower (pages 3-4).
Responding to Berton and The Comfortable Pew became an industry in itself. By November 1965, William Kilbourn had pulled together another anthology, The Restless Church – A Response to the Comfortable Pew. This included another essay by Berton which concludes, “if revolution doesn’t come, then the Church isn’t worth saving” (page 193). Some of the other titles reported by McKillop are quite colourful: Termites in the Shape of Men: Common Sense versus Pierre Berton, Just Think Mr. Berton (A Little Harder), Let God Go Free, and A Church Without God – the last two by Ernest Harrison, the Anglican official who had written the Preface to The Uncomfortable Pew. In 1965, the media phenomenon of announcing the decline of religion occasioned an increase in the publication and sale of books related to the main churches of Canada, an ironic fact that presaged the twenty-first century phenomenon of aggressive atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens becoming bestsellers in the Religion sections of bookstores across Canada and around the world.
Of course, the Canadian experience in 1965 was part of an international social phenomenon. John A. T. Robinson was writing in England, Harvey Cox in the United States. Church statistics in Great Britain, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand would fit into the Canadian story. However, the imminent decline of organized religion was announced internationally and most dramatically by American journalism: Time magazine.
In April 1965, Time featured the famous “God is dead” cover. Newsmagazines like Time, Newsweek and Maclean’s regularly feature religious cover story themes in December and March-April. Cover pictures and stories are intended to increase sales and readership. The association of religious controversy with the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Hunukkah, Passover and Easter seems to accomplish that goal. In 1965, the landscape of Holy Week and Passover included magazine racks on every corner and in every subway station featuring a stark black cover with the words “Is God dead?” in red ink.
1965 was also the turning point for participation in the formal religious institutions of twentieth-century Canada. The United Church of Canada began its statistical decline that year. It had been formed in 1925, a union of the Congregational and Methodist Churches, about 70% of the Presbyterian Church, and about 1000 union congregations that had been established in the previous generation, anticipating the union. Later, other congregations and the Evangelical United Brethren would also join. After 1925, the United Church was by far the largest Protestant church in Canada, the second largest religious group in Canada after the Catholics. In fact, it still is, even in decline. But for 40 years it grew and expanded.
1965 was the last year the United Church experienced growth in membership. The United Church had year-over-year growth in membership from 1925 to 1965, every year. Since 1965, it has had year-over-year decline in its own membership statistics every year.
John Webster Grant narrated the shift in The Church in the Canadian Era, Volume Three of A History of the Christian Church in Canada:
In English-speaking areas of Canada the unofficial establishment of Christianity
had virtually come to an end by 1960, although it would take time for many people to adjust mentally to a situation in which churches were no longer moral policemen but pressure groups or even interest groups…
Churches that had looked forward during the 1950s to a period of quiet
consolidation were shaken to their foundations during the “seething sixties.”
Membership failed to keep pace with growth in population, attendance at
church and Sunday school declined, and money was steadily more difficult
to raise. Recruiting for church work fell off sharply (Grant, 1972: 202-4).
In his Oscar-winning film, The Barbarian Invasions (2004), Denys Arcand has one of his characters remember the sudden decline of the Roman Catholic Church in the mid-60s. Touring a warehouse of statues and church furnishings from closed and abandoned parishes, the old priest says, “At a very precise moment in 1966 in fact the churches suddenly emptied out, in a few months. A very strange phenomenon that has yet to be explained.” In fact, it was 1965, and a generation of scholars and journalists have explained it.
For example, Grant points to the decision, developed by the Lesage government in 1963-64, to establish a ministry of education which finally removed control of education from the Roman Catholic Church… in 1965 (Grant, 1972: 202).
If one were looking for signs of an apocalypse for traditional Canadian society as it had developed in the first century after Confederation in 1867, the best place to look is 1965: Bob Dylan’s song, “The times they are a-changin’” was on the radio, the new flag was introduced in February; in March, Canadian Roman Catholic churches began celebrating the mass in the vernacular; the army, navy and air force went through unification in June; and in November, the failure of an Ontario power station caused The Great Blackout from Florida to Chicago and throughout Ontario. But those are metaphors for the real statistical turning point that occurred at that time, couched in a narrative of commentary in various media.
As Patrick Watson wrote, “After 1965, no Anglican – indeed no aware Canadian Christian of any denomination – could be anything but apprehensive of the possible early downfall of his own religious institution” (Kilbourn, 1968: 105).
For most of the twentieth century, certainly after Church Union in 1925, Canada was seen as a Christian country dominated by Catholicism in Quebec and United Church Protestantism in the rest of Canada. English Catholicism and the Anglican Church were the other major religious institutions throughout the years of the Great Depression, World War Two, and the postwar boom. But after decades of power and growth, they all experienced a turning point, the beginning of an extensive decline in membership, participation rates and influence, a decline that continues today.
1965 was the turning point.
1965 The Comfortable Pew
McClelland & Stewart, Toronto.
Grant, John Webster
1972 The Church in the Canadian Era
(Volume Three of A History of the Christian Church in Canada)
McGraw-Hill Ryerson, Toronto.
Harris, Paul T. (ed.)
1965 Brief to the Bishops: Catholic Laymen Speak Their Minds
Kilbourn, William (ed.)
1966 The Restless Church: A Response to the Comfortable Pew
McLelland & Stewart, Toronto.
Kilbourn, William; A.C. Forrest; and Patrick Watson