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Jan 6, 2005
Metro-Vancouver, B.C., Canada
Canadian religious groups ‘don’t compete’ like U.S. ones: professor

February 6, 2011 – 7:27 pm

Competition, innovation and entrepreneurialism, all qualities normally associated with business, may explain why the United States is more religious than Canada, and also determine the future of organized religions in our country, says a leading sociologist.

“In the United States there is a lively marketplace and competition because Americans are not worried about saying they have absolute truths,” said Reginald Bibby, a University of Lethbridge professor who specializes in religious trends and is the author of the soon-to-be released Beyond The Gods and Back.

“Whereas in Canada it’s really non-Canadian to think we’re going to claim truth over another group. So religious groups in Canada just don’t compete intensely with each other, and what they do instead is service their own customers.”

The United States is considered one of the most religious countries in the world while Canada has become more secular. Studies have shown that 43% of Americans attend a religious service at least once a week while in Canada it is only about 20%. Fifty percent of American teens attend once a week; in Canada, it is 21%.

One of the factors holding back innovation in Canada, said Mr. Bibby, is the relative scarcity of evangelicals in Canada. Evangelicals are the group of people most likely to seek out new places of worship.

In the United States, one third of the population identifies itself with evangelical Christianity, so there is always a large pool of people on the move for a new denominational option.

However, in Canada, only 8% identify themselves as evangelicals. When they grow disillusioned with one church, they might not find another to replace it.
“When you have one in three people in the United States open to changing denominations, that creates a demand and a response to that demand,” Mr. Bibby said.

Canadians continue to be interested in “absolute questions, questions of meaning and purpose,” but more people are looking outside of religion for answers. The demand is there for something to fill the religious vacuum but “the suppliers have not been coming through,” he said.

Mr. Bibby believes social attitudes also play a role in the decline of religion in this country.

Canadians are conservative and even class-conscious, he said. The Anglican Church and the United Church were established and built by those of British backgrounds. Mr. Bibby said a mentality within those denominations holds “that it’s a bit below them to go off to some small church.”

Meanwhile, both of these established churches have seen precipitous declines in attendance over the past several decades. The United Church in particular, he said, is facing a full-out crisis.

In Beyond The Gods and Back, Mr. Bibby, who has written several books on religious trends in Canada, observes a number of signs that point to existential uncertainty for organized religion in general.

The number of teens who never attend services has increased dramatically over the past quarter century; there is an increasing uncertainty about the existence of God even among “believers;” and, perhaps because of stagnant marketplace, more people are defining themselves as “spiritual” but in a way that has become more detached from traditional places of worship.

“Until fairly recently, it seems, spirituality was strongly associated with religion — something like a family member,” he writes in Beyond The Gods and Back. “But [recently] it seems to have moved out of the house.”

He says the combination of religious trends have placed Canada on the “verge of something we cannot envision yet.

Michael Van Pelt, president of Cardus, a Hamilton-based think-tank that looks at societal issues through a Christian lens, said Canadians should be alarmed at any anti-institutional trends in religion. That trend could lessen the frequency of volunteerism and charitable donations.

“I would argue that the vibrancy of a civil society, including our ability to generate charitable good or even steward the common good we need vibrant civil institutions including those of worship.”

In 2007, Mr. Bibby released a survey that found believers are more likely than atheists to place a higher value on love, patience and friendship than non-believers. He suggested that there could be a significant social cost when God is left behind.

However, he said there is still no strong evidence that people who call themselves spiritual are lacking in basic values.

And there may also be a positive side to an erosion of institutional religion, said Sam Reimer, a sociology professor at Crandall University in New Brunswick.

“What we do find that people who are searching tend to be open. They don’t have negative opinions about other religious groups, they’re open to diversity, [taking] a real positive pro-diversity attitude that Canadian tend to be big on.”

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