Angus Reid survey: Faith in Canada

by | April 5, 2015

The Angus Reid Institute recently did a fairly comprehensive survey about religious beliefs and attitudes in Canada. Most of the results about the numbers of beliefs and the growth of non-belief won’t surprise regular readers here. But there were some interesting findings.

The survey covers a lot of ground. It was commissioned by Reginald Bibby – who has done a number of major studies on religious belief in Canada – who also contributed. Normally I would take the time to break something this large up into multiple posts to look into things in depth. However, this time, because I was busy with other things, I didn’t get to this quickly enough and now the well has been poisoned. So I’m just going to blast through it all in a single post, breaking things up into sections to make it a little easier to digest.


Most of what the survey discovered about (non-)religious self-identification in Canada won’t surprise anyone here. It agrees not only with our intuitions, but also with data from other surveys. The 2011 NHS “census” put the number of Nones at ~24%, and this survey reports ~26%. Canadians overall are pretty ambivalent toward religion. People under 55 are much less likely to embrace religion. And women are less likely to reject religion than men. See? Nothing new here.

One thing the study does note is that believers seem to think the hemorrhaging of people from the churches is levelling off. They’re not claiming their congregations are growing, but fewer seem to think they’re shrinking. I am curious to see if that trend holds in future surveys.

Here’s another interesting finding. When the 2011 NHS “census” was done, there was a lot of controversy about the religion question. (Unfortunately, I can’t link to any of the posts about it here, because they were lost after a hack.) The controversy centred on the fact that the question asked people to indicate a religion for a person even if that person is not currently a practising member of that group. That meant that if people answered honestly, the survey results would be heavily skewed toward religion, because the vast majority of atheists in Canada would have been raised in some religious tradition or another.

Despite that, ~24% of Canadians surveyed identified as Nones, but the question remains: How many people who have rejected religion still identify as part of one? This survey gives a surprising, and somewhat disappointing, answer.

In the survey, people were sorted into one of three categories – “inclined to accept religion” (30%), “inclined to reject religion” (26%), and “somewhere in between” (44%). The chart below shows those groups, then shows the people within each group who do not identify with a religion:

Pie charts showing inclination to embrace or reject religion (or ambivalence), then propotions of those who do not identify with a religion.

Religious inclination and identiification

56% of people who reject religion still identify with one! And among the ambivalent 87-freaking-per-cent still identify with a religion! In general, only 22% don’t identify with a religion (though some of those are still religions – more on that shortly).

What that means is that we have a curious coincidence. 26% say they reject religion… and 22% identify with a religion… but they’re different groups of people, though with some overlap. There’s more. 27% of people call themselves “neither religious nor spiritual”… but some of those people “embrace religion” (you can imagine a confident atheist who just loves the idea of religion for “social cohesion”, for example). Religious identity can be a really messy thing.

If you take the time to suss everything out, and pick out (as much as humanly possible with data this messy) the Canadians who:

  1. … are inclined to reject religion;
  2. … do not identify with a religion; and,
  3. … are neither religious nor spiritual,

what you get is an estimate that only around 15% of Canadians are free from religion and open about it. Another 11% are mostly nonreligious (but mostly consider themselves “spiritual”) but still putting on a religious face. Roughly speaking, while 1 in 4 Canadians are Nones, only 1 in 7 are out nonbelievers.

Social attitudes and morality

It shouldn’t be surprising that moral attitudes are fairly muddy across the board. It’s not exactly a topic that’s taught in schools or discussed seriously unless you happen to be in a post-secondary philosophy program. Around half claim they believe in moral relativism, roughly independent of their religiosity.

I found the results about social attitudes to hot-button issues quite enlightening. I think we all know that Canada is a far, far more progressive country than the US. I think we also know that believers are the least progressive members of both societies. The question is: How much more progressive are Canadian believers than their US counterparts? And, how much impact does religion actually have on Canada’s social issues landscape?

The first question is easy. I picked out 7 questions from the survey that measured beliefs on topical social issues. The issues are:

  • Underage sex
  • Unmarried parents
  • Same-sex marriage
  • Same-sex adoption
  • Abortion (two questions: one on extreme circumstances, and one in general)
  • Physician-assisted suicide

When you ask them if they will accept these things, it seems Canadian believers will say yes to all of them, all between 60–70% (with the exception of abortion under circumstances where the mother’s health is endangered, where it was 91%). Impressive, no? Of course, if you ask if they approve of these things (as opposed to merely accepting them while disapproving of them), the numbers drop drastically.

As to the second question, the process is a little more involved. Here’s how I went about it. First, I took the results from the two extremes – embracing and rejecting religion – focusing only on approving, not merely accepting (though you get similar results if you use acceptance rather than approval). Now, in theory, if the “ambivalents” are really smack dab in the middle of the spectrum, we would expect that their position should be the average of the two extremes.

Issue Embrace Reject Ambivalent
Theory Actual Difference
Underage sex 18 53 36 37 +2
Unmarried parents 44 87 66 76 +11
Same-sex marriage 41 78 60 70 +11
Same-sex adoption 40 72 56 65 +9
Abortion (if health endangered) 69 95 82 90 +8
Abortion (any reason) 28 72 50 55 +5
Physician-assisted suicide 61 92 77 86 +10

As you can see, the “ambivalents” are far more progressive than you would expect if you simply assumed they’re “midway” between religious and irreligious.

This tells me several things. First, it tells me that social issues are a key issue. We know from other surveys that the backward attitudes of religions are the main factor driving people away from the churches. This result only confirms that religion is way out of touch with the general society on these issues. That means we should continue to draw attention to them.

The other very important thing it tells me is that the large chunk of “ambivalents” have far more in common socially with us – the ones who reject religion – than with the ones who embrace it. And yet… well, stick around, I’ll get back to this.

When you break it down by religion, it appears that the most socially regressive groups in Canada are Evangelicals and – to a lesser extent – “Other Christians” (which excludes Evangelicals, Roman Catholics, and Mainline Protestants). Take a look at the following two charts from the report:

Bar chart showing various religious groups' approval of same-sex marriage.

Approval of same-sex marriage

Bar chart showing various religious groups' approval of abortion access.

Approval of abortion access

Note that in both cases, pretty much every single group in Canada – and overall – is generally progressive: not only accepting, but approving. The only group that refuses to accept these things is Evangelicals (and “Other Christians” in the case of abortion, which I presume includes various orthodox branches). Amusingly, even Catholics approve access to abortions for any reason at around 45%.

There were some disappointing results, though. It turns out that there is no real difference in the support for waging war between the religiously inclined and disinclined, or in our support for a guaranteed basic income.

Mostly nonreligious woo

When it comes to believing in non-religious nonsense, the “ambivalents” are the chief offenders. “Ambivalents” are more likely than both those who embrace and those who reject religion to believe in:

  • Talking to the dead
  • Reincarnation (yes, this is technically a religious belief, but only 9% of “ambivalents” said they had a religion other than Christianity or None, and 38% believe in reincarnation… so at least 29% believe in it for reasons other than their religion)
  • Psychic powers
  • Astrology
  • That they, themselves, have the power of precognition
  • That God or a “higher power” cares for them personally

Religious? Spiritual?

Unsurprisingly, the largest group of all – by far – was the “spiritual but not religious” folk. These people massively dominate the “ambivalent” group, but they also make up 41% of the “reject religion” group.

Intriguingly, 10% described themselves as the reverse of SBNR: they are “religious but not spiritual”. Most of these (55%) are in the “embrace religion” group, pretty much all the rest are in the “ambivalents”.

Overall, SBNR dominates by quite a bit at 39%, but “neither religious nor spiritual” comes in second at 27, with “religious and spiritual” not far behind at 24%.

Religious tolerance

Broadly speaking, Canadians are rather ambivalent toward religion. Naturally those who embrace religion think it’s a positive thing, and those who reject it think it’s negative. The split apparently works out almost exactly 50-50 between people who think religion as a whole is positive and people who think it’s not.

Broken down by group, here is how respondents felt about each group specifically:

Bar chart showing attitudes toward religious groups.

Attitudes toward religious groups

There is only a single group viewed more positively than anything else: Roman Catholics. That appears to be based almost entirely on Catholics’ opinion of themselves, though. However, it appears Canadians generally view most groups more positively than negatively. Even atheists.

There are only three exceptions: Sikhs, Mormons, and Muslims. Now, I can’t understand why there is so much antipathy toward Sikhs. Mormons, sure… even though there is a large presence in Alberta, Mormonism is still mainly a US thing – and even then, mainly confined to Utah and Wyoming – and they’ve had more than their share of negative publicity, mostly justified.

But Muslims are the only religious group in Canada more despised than tolerated… not liked: tolerated. If the survey is representative, Muslims are the only group Canadians are more bigoted against than they’re even neutral to, let alone positively biased.

Here are some interesting things about that, though:

Focusing on the Nones, the group they rate they highest is… atheists. By quite a bit, too. I suppose that isn’t really surprising. Their second-most-liked group is Buddhists. Then after that there is a huge drop, and the next most liked (in descending order) are Hindus, Jews, and Protestants. Those five groups are rated positively (albeit very slightly in the case of the latter three). The other five are rated negatively. Catholics and Sikhs are each rated slightly negatively – Nones are the only group that rates Catholics negatively, interestingly, and the only group that doesn’t rate Sikhs negatively is Protestants… but only barely. Muslims are rated fairly negatively. However, Nones rate Mormons and Evangelicals significantly lower than Muslims.

Interestingly, the groups that rate atheists negatively are Mainline Protestants, Evangelicals, and “Other Christians”. Roman Catholics rated atheists positively, go figure, as did “Other Religions”.

Here’s a summary table of who each group likes and dislikes:

Group Most liked Most disliked
#1 #2 #2 #1
Roman Catholic Catholics Protestants Sikhs Muslims
Mainline Protestant Protestants Jews Atheists Muslims
Evangelical Evangelicals Protestants Muslims Atheists
Other Christian Protestants Jews Atheists Muslims
Other Religion Buddhists Jews Mormons Evangelicals
No religious identity Atheists Buddhists Mormons Evangelicals
Overall Protestants Catholics Mormons Muslims

The report actually comments on the overwhelmingly negative views of atheists you see in US surveys, and contrasts that to the situation in Canada.


Okay, now we come to the important part! This is Canadian Atheist, after all, and the “Canadian” part is generally covered, so, let’s focus on the “Atheist” part.

Here’s a very broad overview of most of the relevant data, including some I’ve already mentioned:

  • 26% say they reject religion
  • 21% say they have no religious identity
  • 37% prefer to live without “God or congregation”
  • 27% consider themselves neither religious nor spiritual
  • 33% think the growth of atheism in Canada is positive
  • 43% are uncomfortable around the devoutly religious, and only 22% are uncomfortable around people “who have no use for religion”

One of the hardest things to figure out with religious belief surveys is usually how many of the people who say they are not part of any religion are actually atheists – or indeed, how many people are atheists despite identifying with a religion. We know that not everyone who says they have no religious affiliation is actually irreligious – many follow their own idosyncratic/syncretic religions. And we know there are many hundreds of thousands of Canadians – if not millions – who identify as being part of a religion while being secretly nonbelievers. The whole thing gets even more complicated when you realize that there are atheist religions, so atheist does not necessarily imply nonreligious (though the nonreligious does imply atheist, if it’s actually meant sincerely rather than as “not part of a named religion, but still religious”).

The 2011 NHS “census” recorded that around 25% of people have “no religion”, but only 0.15% actually identify as “atheist”. But that doesn’t sound right, now does it? How many people really don’t believe that gods exist?

This survey appears to have also specifically tracked explicit atheism. I’m not 100% sure because there is no corresponding data table in the report. But if the results given in the text are valid, then 13% of all respondents are explicitly atheist – as in they definitely reject that a god exists – including 40% of Nones.

Can you imagine what that means if the survey data is trustworthy? 13%, ±2% 19 times out of 20, of Canadians are atheists. Let’s be conservative and call it 10%. 10% of Canadians are atheists. That means that there are almost 10 times more atheists in Canada than there appears to be. That, combined with the other data in the list above, is remarkable.

What can we take away from this?

~25% of Canadians reject religion, ~20% have no religious identity at all, ~35% prefer to “live without God or congregation”, and broad public opinion is more in line with the opinions of nonbelievers than believers. All that… yet still ⅔ of Canadians disagree that the growth of atheism is a positive thing for Canada? And of course, mainstream media and politics just flat-out ignores our existence (when they’re not discussing us as a “problem”)?

Dudes… we have an image problem.

There should not be so much antipathy toward atheism. Not when so many Canadians are atheists, or nonreligious. And certainly not when Canadian values in general are so much more in line with ours than they are with religious people.

What we seem to have here is a problem connecting with Canadians in general, and communicating our positions to them. A marketing problem, basically: we have a product Canadians seem to like, yet they reject us.

It may be that the time is coming when we’re going to have to stop addressing Canadian society as if we’re outsiders looking in, and start stepping up as a mainstream voice. I fear that we too often confuse our own position with what the Americans are dealing with… and their situation is very different from ours. In the US, there is a very real divide between nonbelief and the mainstream, but that doesn’t appear to be the case in Canada.

My own observations and intuition agree with the survey’s findings. What I am finding is that Canadian society broadly agrees with the aims of atheist and humanist activism… just not with our message. If you look at most of the “anti-atheist” rants that have popped up in recent years, they rarely seem to reject our arguments… instead they focus on the fact that we’re raising a stink. Conrad Black is only the latest “thinker” to fire off a screed full of adjectives like “belligerent”, “militant” – even using “vocal atheist” as if it were a slur. Before Black, it was Rex Murphy. All have essentially the same core message – they don’t really have any real argument that atheism isn’t Canadian, or very much in line with Canadian values, they just complain about “tone”.

Put another way, it would seem that Canadians have no problems with atheists, freethinkers, humanists, and secularists and our values… other than that we keep nagging them to get off their asses and make some changes for the better – changes that they agree are needed. But that’s something we really don’t want to stop doing. So somehow, we have to change the way we’re doing it.

So maybe it’s time to change the way we present ourselves to the rest of Canada. Maybe we should start highlighting the fact that we’re so much in agreement on most issues. Maybe we should put more effort into pointing out that most of the people who oppose us aren’t really people most Canadians approve of. I’m not a marketing or public relations expert, so I can’t offer any practical suggestions. But clearly some change in the way we reach out to Canadians in general is sorely needed.

6 thoughts on “Angus Reid survey: Faith in Canada

  1. Diana MacPherson

    Atheists need to recognize that there are a lot of us and with those nones out there – well we have a lot of clout. It’s time to start demanding to be heard and demanding politicians listen to us!

    1. Indi Post author

      > It’s time to start demanding to be heard and demanding politicians listen to us!

      I disagree, actually; not with the sentiment but with the method. I think trying to get politicians to listen to us is a waste of our time.

      Our current political system actually rewards divisiveness, not seeking broad consensus (I covered this a while back in a post on electoral reform; I should probably repost that in some form). Every major political party has to make a choice about which demographics they’ll pander to, and which they’ll ignore – trying to appeal broadly is a losing game in our electoral system; better to pick a group and pander than to have your support spread widely. On top of that, all of our major political parties have made their choice, and “flip-flopping” – even when it’s a wholly rational change of direction given new evidence – is irrationally considered to be a sign of weakness, that other parties will exploit.

      So basically, our politicians have made their choice, and that choice is to hell with us. They have chosen to lick the feet of religious demographics. So be it. Fuck them.

      (The same to mainstream media outlets. If you’ve seen the National Post’s infographic on the survey, you will see a masterful example of selective information editing. They mention the “inclined to reject” demographics in the first section, of course, then the immigration and perception numbers in the next two… but then they completely ignore the Nones in the identification section, and in the percentage growth section. Most glaringly, though, in the section on beliefs, they have conveniently avoided any of those beliefs that shine a negative light on the religious – like attitudes toward abortion, same-sex marriage and adoption, and unmarried parents. So, fuck the media, too.)

      So rather than trying to appeal to politicians (or the media gatekeepers), I think a better strategy would be to go over their heads and appeal to their masters: the public. I think it might be more worthwhile to go on a blitz telling Canadians that we’re not rage-fuelled amoral monsters, and that our values are their values… more so even than religious values are. In other words, I think we should stop wasting our time with the “leadership” – politicians and media leaders – and talk directly to Canadians. We should make ourselves mainstream – more publicly visible, much harder to ignore, selling ourselves as friendly and “Canadian” without undermining our progressive and social justice creds.

      I have a hunch that once we start doing that, the politicians will *quickly* realize that the grounds are shifting beneath their feet. Then we will see *them* rushing to *us* – we’ll no longer be begging them for attention, they’ll be begging us. Which would give us the opportunity to start having a real voice in policy, for a change.

  2. billybob

    What? We have to stop eating babies and persecuting christians?

    Most of the negative publicity comes from the Catholic
    hierarchy and evangelicals. They seem to be better at spin than atheists and they have a bigger podium.

    Could we learn from the gays, they whipped the ass of the
    fundies and catholics.

    Maybe we need to play the persecuted card as the majority christians are doing?

    I think you have a point image and marketing is very important.

    What about a scantily dressed sexy woman next to an athiest logo? Sells cars.

  3. Tom West

    Of course atheism has an image problem.

    Religious belief is inevitably declining, and the population in general is fine with this decline in belief. Few really care about other’s personal beliefs.

    But thanks to Dawkins, et al, the term atheism (as opposed to non-belief) is associated with attacks on the religious institutions which are still cultural and historical touchstones.

    Most non-believers still want to get married in a church…

    Those who loudly and repeatedly denounce religion, as opposed to merely opposing social policies that happen to have the church on the other side, do far more to tarnish atheism in the eyes of the public than any church ever did.

    Any institution that is dying through apathy of its members prays for a villain to attack it, thus mobilizing its members, and providing a clear focus that it has otherwise lost. Vocal attacks on religion and the church provides that.

    For the vast majority of Canadians, lack of religious belief is *not* an identity, any more than lack of interest in science fiction is an identity. And to be honest, people going on about how much they do not read science fiction or how much they’re not interested in sports, etc. etc are generally viewed pretty negatively.

    1. Indi Post author

      > But thanks to Dawkins, et al….

      What does Dawkins have to do with anything? Why even bring him up? He’s not Canadian, and I doubt most Canadian atheists – never mind Canadians in general – care what he has to say.

      And since when is it *Dawkins* (or anyone like him) who is associating atheism with attacks on religion, and not religious leaders and their supporters? Your facts seem to be out of order.

      > Most non-believers still want to get married in a church…

      Citation needed. The statistics I’ve heard put church weddings at around the 30% mark. And that’s for Canadians overall… I’d bet nonbelievers have *MUCH* lower rates.

      The same applies to other cultural religious trappings. There are lots of people who try to claim that we need religion for these things because of tradition. Reality disagrees – you won’t find many Canadians weeping about taking the Christ out of Christmas and leaving the Santa, and you won’t find many upset if all the talk of brutal torture and execution gets dropped from the Easter narrative leaving only the Bunny and the chocolate eggs. The role of religion in cultural tradition is greatly overstated.

      > Those who loudly and repeatedly denounce religion, as opposed to merely opposing social policies that happen to have the church on the other side, do far more to tarnish atheism in the eyes of the public than any church ever did.

      Again you seem confused. The people “tarnishing” atheism are not the anti-religious activists – even the most pugnacious anti-religious activists. It is the religious leadership and their supporters. Don’t take my word for it – next time you see someone slamming atheists, look at the reasons *why* they are slamming atheists, and compare them with the thing atheists actually do versus the things religious writers *say* atheists do. You might be startled.

      You will find that it is only in very, *very* rare cases that someone writing an “atheists suck” article even bothers to actually quote atheists, or give concrete examples of something they did – and in the rare cases that they do, they almost always quote out of context or otherwise misrepresent what was said or done. Almost always whenever someone is writing one of those “atheists suck” articles just make empty accusations and vague insinuations that feed in to the stereotype. By contrast, atheists writing articles slamming religion usually provide a *laundry list* of examples and quotes and so on – or at least links to the source of the one particular egregious thing the religion/believer did that they’re on about – and they often go to great pains to explain the context meticulously.

      What I’m getting at is your hypothesis is wrong. The negative view of atheists is not the fault of atheists or anything they’ve done. It is *entirely* due to the seemingly never-ending smear campaign being undertaken by religious writers and their supporters. We don’t need to change our behaviour, we just need to mount a counter-campaign to drown out the smears with things that can’t be interpreted to reinforce their message.

      > Any institution that is dying through apathy…

      You seem to be under the patently ridiculous notion that if atheists were to just… vanish… to just completely shut up and disappear from all public discourse, that religious would just naturally fade away due to apathy. Ten thousand years of human civilization proves you wrong.

      Religion doesn’t just… go away… if you leave it alone. Without challenge, religion infects every single facet of a society, and gets passed to vulnerable and credulous children, most of whom grow up so steeped in the beliefs and the culture they can’t imagine tossing it aside. Look around and you’ll *still* see plenty of adults who are just so brainwashed by a religion they’re transparently delusional even in the face of monumental conflicting evidence. Luckily most of those adults are getting on in years and will probably die out in a few decades… luckily the *next* few generations are already looking much healthier, mentally; and that’s entirely due to the work of atheist activists breaking the spell of religion.

      Left alone, religion creates a society where its beliefs are almost never seriously questioned, and where the religion permeates every single aspect of daily life so much that people trapped in the mix can’t even *conceive* of a way out. It creates a society where apathy is not an option. This is not hypothetical – you can see this quite clearly in dozens of god-besotted countries or small and isolated communities around the world today.

      In fact, there’s the evidence: just look at any isolated religious group – Mennonites, Orthodox Jewish sects, etc…. do you see any sign of *those* just shrivelling up and fading away due to apathy? Hardly. If they’re dying off at all it’s because of birth and death rates, not because people in the group are just getting bored of the religion.

      The reason apathy is even an option in Canada is because *we* made it so.

      > For the vast majority of Canadians, lack of religious belief is *not* an identity, any more than lack of interest in science fiction is an identity.

      That would be something we could change, by making ourselves more visible.

      > And to be honest, people going on about how much they do not read science fiction or how much they’re not interested in sports, etc. etc are generally viewed pretty negatively.

      By whom? By you?

      The easiest way to show you how ridiculous this claim is, is to point out the *myriad* things that have people who say they’re not interested in them, yet those people are not viewed negatively.

      Politics. It is quite fashionable to say you’re not interested in politics; people who say “I’m not interested in politics” are not viewed negatively in Canada. In fact, there are comedians who make their living going on and on about how much they don’t care about politics. You can go into any group of strangers and quite confidently declare “I’m not interested in politics”, and have no real worry that they will roll their eyes and dismiss you. (In fact, doing the opposite – expressing an interest in politics – will probably make people uncomfortable or annoyed.)

      Certain genres in music, or acts like Nickelback or Justin Bieber. I guarantee you that if you start up any conversion with “I hate Nickelback/Bieber”, you will almost certainly find enthusiastic encouragement. In fact, this would work for many over-saturated cultural phenomenons. Indeed, loudly expressing your lack of interest in some over-saturated pop phenomenon is a well-known technique for ingratiating yourself into a new crowd – it’s much more effective at getting you “in” with a group than expressing *interest* in anything.

      Technology, or mathematics, or anything intellectually “hard”. Outside of a fairly small set, you generally can’t go wrong by putting on a show of how much you disdain math or technology. In the case of math, you will almost certainly never hear anyone out and about in the general public proudly boasting about their math skills… but I guarantee you that you will hear plenty of people joking about their lack of it. Bragging about your lack of interest in math is pretty standard fare. So is talking about your lack of interest in technology and technological issues; while it’s true everyone wants the latest and greatest smartphone, it’s also true that they will loudly, publicly, and frequently complain about any technically complexities they have. “I just want to be able to turn it on and do {whatever}…” is pretty much a mantra.

      I could go on. There are *plenty* of things that people can talk about not being interested in and still have tons of positive attention. Merely being “not interested” in something does not automatically equal antipathy.

      I don’t disagree that people *are* viewed negatively for expressing anti-religious ideas… I question whether they *should* be viewed negatively for expressing anti-religious ideas. Currently, our society is *very* supportive of expressing anti-racist ideas, or anti-homophobic ideas, or anti-semitic ideas, or anti-pollution ideas. They’re a lot less supportive of expressing anti-misogynist ideas, or anti-colonial, or anti-oligarchical ideas. Right now, expressing anti-religious ideas falls somewhere in between, and there’s no reason it can’t be pushed closer to the supportive side.

      The bottom line is that your attempts to blame atheists for their negative perception are flat-out bullshit – they’re as stupid and offensive as trying to blame black people for their negative perception in the 1950s (or aboriginal Canadians for their negative perception even today).

  4. billybob

    “Without challenge, religion infects every single facet of a society”



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.