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Bob Brehl: ‘Nones’ of a different kind on the rise

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  • October 2, 2019

Church attendance is waning and religious non-affiliation is waxing. That’s hardly news. Observe the empty pews.

A year ago, The Catholic Register reviewed a book devoted to the topic Leaving Christianity: Changing Allegiances in Canada since 1945 by Brian Clarke and Stuart Macdonald. Recently in The Atlantic magazine I came across a new layer to the issue: “Three Decades Ago, America Lost Its Religion. Why?” 

The article discusses the rise of religious non-affiliation — especially the hypergrowth of the “nones” in the U.S., where those who identify with no religion increased from levels below 10 per cent in the 1980s to almost one-quarter today.

That got me researching Canadian surveys on religion. And, as usual, when one peels the onion layers, there are differences between Canadians and Americans. Canada has more “nones” at close to 30 per cent and the rise began earlier. 

Before examining the differences between Canada and the U.S., consider three signposts.

  • In Canada, 9,000 churches of all dominations (about one-third of the total places of worship) will be closed or sold and turned into secular buildings by 2030, according to two non-profit organizations called Faith & The Common Good and National Trust For Canada.

  • Almost two-thirds of Canadians identify either as Catholic or Protestant, but both groups have witnessed substantial erosion, according to the Pew Research Centre’s Forum on Religion and Public Life. The percentage who identify as Catholic has dropped from 47 to 39 per cent since 1980, while those who identify as Protestant has fallen even more steeply, from 41 to 27 per cent.

  • At the same time, Pew says, the number of Canadians who belong to other religions — Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Judaism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity — is growing and now represents about one in seven Canadians.

But the fact remains: The “nones” are now the second-largest group of Canadians, behind Catholics but ahead of all other religions. If trends continue, will the “nones” be ahead of Catholics by the time Canada closes those 9,000 churches?

The Atlantic article finds that the explosion of “nones” in the U.S. began in the early 1990s. “According to Christian Smith, a sociology and religion professor at the University of Notre Dame, America’s nonreligious lurch has mostly been the result of three historical events: the association of the Republican Party with the Christian right, the end of the Cold War and 9/11,” the article states.

Smith argues the Republican Party became the de facto “religious” party during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush as evangelicals muscled into politics, followed by right-leaning Catholics, after losing key social battles on things like abortion and divorce.

During the Cold War, the article explains, many Americans were uncomfortable jettisoning religious affiliation for fear neighbours would think they sided with the “godless evil empire” of Communists. 

And lastly, the 9/11 attacks by radical Islamic terrorists convinced many Americans that religion is the root of many of the world’s ills. 

“Religion has lost its halo effect in the past three decades, not because science drove God from the public square, but rather because politics did,” The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson writes.

Even if one agrees with these assumptions, it’s unlikely any of the three American factors swayed Canadians to abandon religious affiliation. 

So why is the rise of “nones” happening in Canada? Frankly, the list is long, but here are a few reasons.

Modernity and the rise of secularism has played a significant role. All our institutions — Church, Parliament, banks, police and others — have suffered when it comes to public trust. And scandals and coverups in the Catholic Church — and other religions — have tarnished the moral authority of Church leaders and helped accelerate the “nones” growth. 

There’s also technology, which allows beliefs and misbeliefs to spread rapidly and consumed constantly. It is easy to build communities online, instead of at church and in person.

Changes to the nuclear family in North America has had an impact. The norm used to be get married, go to church or temple, have kids, bring kids to church or Sunday school. Today that path is followed by fewer and fewer. 

The phenomenon of “delayed adulthood” could be a reason why people under age 40 lead the “nones” by far. They’re putting off marriage and childbearing until their 30s, and using their 20s to establish a career and enjoy being single. 

By the time they settle down, their established routine of work, gym, sports and hanging out with friends leaves no room for church.

Some people also believe youth hockey has played a role. When I was a child, we never had games or practices on Sundays. Today, Sunday hockey is the norm so families have difficulty getting to Mass.

The change is dramatic and the implications widespread, fodder enough for a future column.

(Brehl is a writer and author of many books.)

Comments (1)

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As a "None' who is interested in 'why do people believe in what they believe' it seems it comes down to where one turns when needs aren't met. It also seems that more people in this era first consider natural explanations before considering...

As a "None' who is interested in 'why do people believe in what they believe' it seems it comes down to where one turns when needs aren't met. It also seems that more people in this era first consider natural explanations before considering supernatural explanations.

If you think about very early humanity and a volcano or tsunami wipes out half a village, the first reaction was likely 'why' rather than 'how'. Why did the volcano kill my family. The tools and knowledge were not developed enough to explore 'how' so the 'why' prevailed. And when you ask why w/out critical thinking you make assumptions that a mind is at work. A mind is behind the volcano. Power of suggestion and imagination takes off from there and the volcano is deified. When needs aren't being met, most are more likely to embrace the idea and belief systems start to form and eventually transition into man-like god(s).

In this age with more critical thinking and tools to explore the how, asking why is too presumptuous.

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