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:
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:
- … are inclined to reject religion;
- … do not identify with a religion; and,
- … 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.
|Abortion (if health endangered)||69||95||82||90||+8|
|Abortion (any reason)||28||72||50||55||+5|
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:
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
- That they, themselves, have the power of precognition
- That God or a “higher power” cares for them personally
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%.
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:
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|
|No religious identity||Atheists||Buddhists||Mormons||Evangelicals|
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.