An offering is seen at the site of the former Brandon Indian Residential School June 12, 2021. The Catholic Church role in residential schools has impacted how Canadians view the Church. CNS photo/Shannon VanRaes, Reuters

Canadians cherish freedom of conscience but view Catholicism in poor light: poll

  • April 29, 2022

Almost 70 per cent of Canadians believe conscience rights make Canada a better country while only about seven per cent say the Charter guarantee leaves us worse off, pollster Angus Reid reports.

For Cardinal Thomas Collins, Archbishop of Toronto, the finding affirms his own long-standing conviction that Canadian citizens cherish legal protection for freedom of conscience.

“Most Canadians recognize that we need a guide to lead us through the difficult choices that are presented in this life,” Collins told The Catholic Register in response to the survey released April 18 by the Angus Reid Institute and think tank Cardus.

“Conscience is that guide, as we navigate through the illusions we face amid the fads and fashions of this world. Conscience is itself guided by the light of faith and reason, which allow it to make accurate judgments about reality and about the moral issues that we encounter.

“Even reason alone, for people without faith, can guide the conscience. Freedom of conscience allows Christians, and all people, to act rightly, reaching out to those who are in need, and so making our society a better place. We all benefit from this right that is enshrined in the constitution,” he added.

Freedom of conscience and religion rights were officially enshrined into law through the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982. Of the 1,708 Canadians who participated in the ARI-Cardus survey, 1,152 (69 per cent) support its inclusion in the Charter. About 25 per cent felt conscience rights make no impact or did not know. The remainder view them as harmful.

But while the report,Canada across the religious spectrum: A portrait of the nation’s inter-faith perspectives during Holy Week,” showed strong nation-wide support for conscience rights, it also revealed nearly a third of Canadians feel conscience rights are being eroded. Strikingly, more than 66 per cent of self-identified Evangelical Christians believe support is declining for religious and conscience rights. It’s a perspective shared by 39 per cent of Jewish Canadians surveyed, as well as by 36 per cent each of Muslims and other Protestant groups.

At the same time, the report shows, “nearly as many (28 per cent) say it has remained consistent. One-quarter (25 per cent) believe freedom of religion and conscience is becoming stronger.”

Ray Pennings, executive vice-president of Cardus, says the results reflect “a general concern about how religions and institutions of faith are being treated in public life and the public square.” A hypothesized reason why Evangelical Christians are most alarmed about the state of these rights is because several pastors across the country spent time in jail, and different churches have had to go to court to fight COVID-19 restrictions.

Within religious traditions themselves, Jewish support for the belief that freedom of conscience rights make Canada a better place was strongest at 88 per cent. Muslims were next at 83 per cent, and Evangelical Christians were at 79 per cent. All other religious groups expressed about two-thirds affirmative support for these Charter rights, including 66 per cent of Roman Catholics.

Each of the surveyed Canadians self-identified their religious demographic to participate. Roman Catholicism, mainstream Protestantism, Evangelical Christianity, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Jewish and no religion constituted the survey groups.

While freedom of conscience rights represented an area of unity among the different Canadian belief groups, they diverge when it comes to which faiths are benefitting or harming society. Each survey participant was asked, “In your view, would you say the overall presence of each of these (religions) in Canadian public life is benefitting or damaging Canada and Canadian society?”

Canadians, the ARI-Cardus poll found, are more likely to view Catholicism, Evangelical Christianity and Islam as more damaging than beneficial. All other religions, including atheism, have “positive assessments that outweigh negative ones.”

Pennings said the finding has been consistent over several years of being asked. He cited residential school awareness among Canadians as a contributor to the negative assessments.

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