A new Angus Reid poll shows Pope Francis is popular with Canadians, whether they are religious or not. (CNS photo)

Canadians are becoming ambivalent on religion

  • April 2, 2015

Canadians are increasingly becoming ambivalent about religion or rejecting it outright, but people across the religion spectrum admire the Pope, according to an Angus Reid Institute study released before Easter.

The online survey of 3,041 Canadians divided respondents into three categories: Thirty per cent are inclined to embrace religion, 26 per cent are inclined to reject religion, but the biggest group is 44 per cent who are ambivalent.

Although enthusiasm for religion is declining, the numbers indicate that religion is far from stamped out in the Great White North, said Angus Reid Institute chairman Angus Reid.

“Don’t feel alone. Don’t feel like you’re some kind of outcast or weirdo or whatever,” Reid said. “Hey, there’s a lot of people out there who do that (embrace faith).”

As for that big ambivalent chunk of the Canadian population, it’s a glass half full as far as Reid can see.

“There’s this big group of the mushy middle, ambivalent Canadians. They’re very big,” he said. “It tells those on the religious side there’s a lot of room for evangelization.”

But one area of consensus revolves around the man millions call “papa.” Pope Francis has an incredibly positive rating from all categories of Canadians. Three quarters of Canadians think “Pope Francis is having a positive impact on the world.

Even 63 per cent of those inclined to reject religion like what they hear from Pope Francis, while 81 per cent of those who embrace religion approve of the Pope.

“Francis has understood that the nature of religion in modern society has changed. He has geared his papacy toward that change,” said David Seljak, a sociologist of religion at Waterloo, Ont.’s St. Jerome’s University. “His pastoral method is one of dialogue rather than pronouncement. The important thing to understand is that Francis has these incredible approval numbers, but he hasn’t changed any substantial Catholic teaching.”

Among those who find Pope Francis “such a breath of fresh air” is Canadian Secular Alliance spokesman Justin Trottier, an atheist.

“There is something different about this Pope compared to many of the popes who have preceded him,” Trottier said.

It doesn’t surprise Trottier that even people who reject religion are embracing Francis.

“Even atheists, even non-religious people or religious people who are not Catholic do have an interest in who is sitting in the papacy,” he said. “Because of the influence that that individual holds.”

Overall, the survey paints a very different picture of belief in Canada than a survey might have found 50 years ago, said Seljak.

“Canada used to be one of the most vibrant and dynamic Christian countries in the 1960s in the Western world,” said Seljak. “Religion in Canada has become middle aged — you know, a bit mushy in the middle. Clearly we could use some toning up.”

Enormous social changes over the past 50 years — social mobility between classes, job mobility, geographic mobility that has stretched families from one end of the country to the other, the sexual revolution and the growth of consumer culture — has left institutional religion responding to a very different reality,

“I don’t think religious suppliers, i.e. the churches, the synagogues and the mosques are doing anything particularly wrong,” Seljak said. “What you have is a profound sea change in the type of society we’re living in. Secularization is one of the side effects of that enormous change.”

Some churches and religious institutions are doing a better job than others of reaching out to people, “and some of them have their heads in the sand,” but the core issue is not a marketing problem as far as Seljak is concerned. In a world in which personal autonomy, choice and informed consent rules every other aspect of life, religious leaders can’t assume religious affiliation translates into doctrinal, dogmatic or communal loyalty.

“Bishops can make whatever pronouncements they want, but even the people in the pews aren’t listening,” Seljak said. “Even their most loyal followers are deciding for themselves.”

In the age of personal autonomy, paternalism is doomed, he said.

“We are living in an age of post-paternalism. People are deciding their spiritual path for themselves,” said Seljak.

Rejection of religious institutions and authority has led to a split between religion and spirituality in the minds of many Canadians. The Angus Reid study found that 39 per cent of us think of ourselves as “spiritual but not religious,” compared to 24 per cent in the “spiritual and religious” category. Twenty-seven per cent said they are “neither religious nor spiritual.”

“In a perfect world, religion and spirituality should be interconnected, actually even inseparable,” said Julius-Kei Kato, King’s University College professor of religious studies. “Religion and spirituality considered in their authentic meanings are two inseparable things.”

The problem is the negative connotations religion has taken on.

“For many people in the Western world, religion has unfortunately been associated with a narrow-minded, outdated, irrelevant, hypocritical, backward-looking or reactionary, even bigoted and mean general attitude,” Kei wrote in an email to The Catholic Register. “It is often equated with an institution that embodies most or all of those negative qualities.”

On the other hand, spirituality has become “cool,” said Kei.

“It has come to mean a profound search for one’s deepest and most authentic core or an inspiring quest for something greater than oneself that would fulfill one’s deepest longing — in short, all the good, genuine and profound efforts to touch the ultimate,” he said.

Looking into the religious sentiments of Canadians is important because of the Christian base Canada has in its history, said Trottier. Laws and customs in Canada still assume Christian or some other kind of belief and often privilege Christian institutions, he said.

“If the trendlines continue there may come a point where a majority of Canadians are no longer religious,” Trottier said. “When that happens, I don’t think we will want to see a situation where we switch from favouring religion to favouring atheism. Which is why I believe in a neutrality, in a secularism under which neither religion nor atheism is favoured. Those who embrace religion would do well to look at the direction things are going in and realize they may become the minority sooner rather than later. Let’s put in place policies now that defend all minority points of view.”

The Angus Reid Institute is not the Angus Reid polling company, but a separate, non-profit foundation set up by Reid to conduct non-partisan, public interest research. Reid tapped University of Lethbridge sociologist Reginald Bibby to help design the survey questions.

The survey on religion and faith was conducted between March 4 and 11 and asked questions of 3,041 Canadians who had pre-opted into the online panel. It then weighted their answers to correspond to Canada’s national profile in terms of geography, language, sex and other factors.

The institute considers its results accurate 19 times out of 20 to within plus or minus 1.8 percentage points.



Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.