While 77 per cent of those raised Catholic retain the faith, 28 per cent said they don’t believe in God, a Cardus-Angus Reid study found. CNS photo/Lisa Johnston

Faith numbers troubling, yet encouraging

  • June 19, 2022

Compelling new research out of Cardus and the Angus Reid Institute should encourage Canadian religious leaders to take a deeper look at why some people remain religiously faithful and why others do not, says Rev. Dr. Andrew Bennett.

Religious trends are both hopeful and troubling, says Bennett, program director for religious freedom at Cardus. Bennett, along with Cardus executive vice-president Ray Pennings, has embarked on their Why the Faith? cross-Canada tour to unpack the non-partisan think tank’s recent findings on Canadian religious identity. The tour which began in British Columbia, continues this month with dates in Toronto, Calgary and Saskatoon and will extend into the fall with stops in Montreal, Halifax and eastern Ontario.

The extensive study, which spanned five years, found that roughly 77 per cent of those raised Roman Catholic continue to identify as such into adulthood. While that may sound encouraging, when asked if they believed in God or a higher power, a staggering 28 per cent who identified as Catholic said they did not. These numbers are roughly equivalent to what would be found among mainstream Protestants. For Evangelical Protestants the percentage of those who don’t believe in God is very small, however, adherents are also leaving that community at a higher rate than Catholics.

Evangelical Protestants stand alone with a significant majority believing religion should have a place in the public square and in the public life of the country. Catholics, on the other hand, say no, it does not. This notion among Catholics needs to be reckoned with, said Bennett.

“This sense that my religion is a private matter should be of concern for the Canadian bishops because it speaks to a number of things such as questions around formation and what it means to live as a Catholic in the world,” said Bennett. “These are questions that the Church in Canada is going to have to seriously address.”  

The study looked at the spectrum of spirituality across all major religions in Canada and seven factors that determine how engaged someone is in religious life. Among questions included were whether participants went to a place of worship on a regular basis, read sacred scripture, had an experience of God in their life or prayed.

What the study found generally was that roughly 20 per cent of Canadians are religiously committed, 22 per cent are not religious at all, which includes atheists and those who  have no view of it. The cohorts in the middle were roughly split 32 per cent for spiritually uncertain and 28 per cent for the privately faithful. The study showed that for the vast majority of Canadians spirituality played an important role.

Particularly encouraging, Bennett says, was that for millennials aged 18 to 34, the religiously committed number is holding at 20 per cent. The privately faithful number is shrinking while there is a corresponding rise in the spiritually uncertain and in the non-religious. The main takeaway Bennett sees is that there is a hollowing out of the middle. Those who are lukewarm in their faith are moving more towards the spiritually uncertain or non-religious side of the spectrum. And while the non-religious side is growing, there is still a strong component of those who are religiously committed. 

This commitment to the faith he believes has to do with feelings of truth and sincerity in the Church.

“This is an opportunity for the Catholic Church to recognize that young Catholics who are committed to their faith are not there because there is some cultural pressure to be there,” said Bennett. “They’re not there because it somehow benefits their social standing — those days are long gone. They are there because they desire to be faithful. They see something that is attractive to them in the integrity and authenticity of the Catholic faith and the Christian faith.”

That should give Catholic leaders much to unpack.

“How do we continue to engage those young people? That is a really interesting issue. It behooves the Church to ask the question, why have they stayed.”

Outside of clergy, bishops are interested in what is keeping people in the Church and why they are leaving. It can no longer be assumed that those sitting in the pews believe what faith leaders think they believe, said Bennett. With findings complicating the narrative around Canadian religious beliefs, he says it’s possible today that leaders overestimate what people believe and their understanding of the Catholic faith.

Last modified on June 21, 2022

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