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Comment: It’s time to change the narrative around religion in Canada

Graph: Angus Reid


ALMOST 150 years following Confederation, faith continues to play a significant and positive role in Canada’s civic life. Faith was a central part of the Canadian project in 1867, be it through recognition of religious freedom for Quebec’s Roman Catholics, the principles enshrined in Common Law, or by borrowing from the Book of Psalms for Canada’s official motto “From Sea to Sea.”

On April 15th new polling by the Angus Reid Institute conducted in partnership with Faith in Canada 150, an interfaith initiative of the think tank Cardus, finds only 19 per cent of Canadians identify as non-believers in any religion, while about 21 per cent are the direct opposite – religiously committed. The rest of Canadians call themselves either “privately faithful” (30 percent) or “spiritually uncertain” (30 percent). They’re neither strong believers nor disbelievers.

Despite this religious openness, the same polling indicates a significant disconnect between the perception and reality of faith’s role in today’s Canada.

Simply put, religion has an image problem in Canada. In fact, the word “religion” is more likely to be seen negatively than positively, according to this new poll. Moreover, just over half of Canadians say they disagree with the claim that religion’s overall impact on the world is positive.

About half of Canadians polled say they’re uncomfortable around those who are religiously devout. Throw in terms like born-again, theology and evangelism, and just 15 per cent of respondents associate those words with a positive meaning.

But how well do Canadians actually understand the role faith plays in everyday life? Asked what’s most important in life, the 21 per cent of Canadians who are religiously committed are most likely to prioritize family life, honesty and concern for others.

Conversely, concern for others was a lower priority for non-believers. Instead, they are more likely to select a comfortable life, self-reliance and good times with friends as important. Not to put too fine a point on it, but those who are most likely to pray to God, attend religious services regularly and read the Bible or another sacred text seem most oriented toward others and their welfare.

What about Canadians’ emotional lives? The religiously committed are the happiest amongst us. Fully 47 per cent of them say they’re very happy or extremely happy overall, compared with 35 per cent of non-believers. They also report the highest levels of happiness among friends and in their communities. None of that is terribly surprising. If anything, it simply confirms what other research has shown. It makes sense, then, that the religiously committed are also more likely to be “very optimistic” about the future.

When it comes to community engagement and charitable giving, once again it’s the religiously committed who report the strongest involvement. Slightly more than half of non-believers say they are uninvolved in community groups or activities. That percentage drops to 17 per cent of the religiously committed. In fact, 41 per cent of the religiously committed have at least some involvement in their community, with another 42 per cent reporting heavy involvement.

Almost a third of the religiously committed say they regularly volunteer compared with 13 per cent of non-believers. Dare we ask about charitable giving?  Only 12 per cent of non-believers say they try to donate to whatever charities they can. That jumps to 43 per cent among the religiously committed. These are not selfish people.

The numbers present a clear picture: Religiously committed Canadians tend to be the most concerned about others, the happiest and most generous. So why do Canadians have a negative view of religion? Arguably, the story of faith in Canada is not being well told. The narrative around faith is often negative. Religion is frequently presented as something that divides rather than unites people within communities.

That is part of the reason why Faith in Canada 150 exists, to showcase the role of faith in making Canada the country that it is. That legacy is a story worth telling.   TAP

Ray Pennings is Executive Vice-President of the think tank Cardus, This article first appeared in the National Post, May 20, 2017.

Editor’s note: The poll found significant variations across Canada. In the prairie provinces, roughly 30 per cent of respondents were classified as religiously committed compared with just 14 per cent in Quebec and 19 per cent in British Columbia. B.C. had the highest number of unbelievers at 27 per cent. Across Canada, immigrants and visible minorities were much more likely to be religiously committed.

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