Canadians may be less apathetic about religion than we think

by | January 8, 2016

It’s taken as a matter of course that Canadians are apathetic about the role of religion in society. But what if that’s not as true as commonly thought?

The Angus Reid Institute (ARI) is perhaps the most important independent polling organization in Canada. I’ve covered several of their surveys on Canadian Atheist. For their 2015 year-end wrap-up, they listed their top 10 stories, ranked by reader interest. It should come as no surprise that the 2015 federal election was #1, but some of the other topics making the top 10 are very interesting:

  1. Election 2015
  2. Bill C-51
  3. Religion and Faith in Canada
  4. The Mike Duffy Trial
  5. The Syrian Refugee Crisis
  6. Housing crises in Toronto and Vancouver
  7. The Harper Legacy
  8. Prescription drugs and pharmacare
  9. Canada’s mission against ISIS
  10. Public Prayer

Two of the top stories of 2015 are explicitly about religion, and the general one about religion and faith in Canada was #3… above stories about ISIS, health care, and a couple to do with politics.

Even more interesting is what the folks at ARI found after digging a little deeper. The above ranking is based simply on which stories attracted the most attention. Interesting, sure, but, yanno, not that interesting. However, ARI also did a survey about engagement – about which stories people talked about the most in 2015.

It turns out that the most-talked about story of the year was not the election, it was the Paris terror attacks – specifically, apparently, the November attacks. The election was #2 (and #3, and #4; fair enough, it was a major Canadian story). Other stories that were widely discussed but didn’t make the top 10 above include the (presumably Residential School system) Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Senate reform, Omar Khadr, and vaccinations.

Surprisingly, prayer at public meetings was one of the stories this year that had the highest level of engagement – higher even than Senate reform, Omar Khadr, and the TRC.

Chart illustrating the engagement data on 2015 Angus Reid Institute stories.

Canadian engagement in the 2015 Angus Reid Institute stories

However, engagement was extremely polarized: either people talked a lot about prayer at public meetings, or they didn’t talk about it at all. Nothing else was quite so polarized in its engagement (though childhood vaccination comes close).

So maybe Canadians aren’t quite so apathetic about the role of religion in society as we’re commonly led to believe. It seems to be a topic we’re quite interested in, though in a very peculiar way. Quite a few of us refuse to talk about it all, but many do, and those who do, talk about it a lot. We have high engagement, but all clustered in a small group of people.

What this seems to suggest is that those of us who do talk about the issues should try talking about them with people we don’t normally discuss them with. That seems like a good resolution for the new year, I think.

So how about it, readers? How about making it a pledge for 2016 to try to talk about religion in society issues in places where we normally wouldn’t discuss them.

7 thoughts on “Canadians may be less apathetic about religion than we think

  1. Veronica Abbass

    “How about making it a pledge for 2016 to try to talk about religion in society issues in places where we normally wouldn’t discuss them.”

    I’ve been doing just that for years much to the annoyance of some of my listeners and even some of my atheist colleagues.

    It will come as no surprise to people reading this that I am a rabid secularist although others have used adjectives other than rabid to describe my attitude.

    The recent Supreme Court ruling regarding prayer at public meetings was one of the highlights of 2015 for me.

    I continue to assert that religion and the trappings of religion have no place in the public sphere, and people should not be forced to pay for the privileges granted one or many religions. Publicly-funded religious schools are a scourge, and public libraries and post-secondary institutions that open and close based on the Christian “holiday” calendar should show more respect for their diverse population.

    Listening to the the Prime Minister and half of the newly appointed cabinet members say “So Help Me God” is a betrayal of the Supreme Court of Canada ruling regarding prayer even if the ruling doesn’t apply to the practices of the federal government.

    I also talk loudly and passionately about getting rid of Canada’s Multiculturalism Act, which accommodates religion and encourages religious expression in public, and replacing it with an encompassing act that recognizes secularism as the over-riding Canadian ideology.

    1. Indi Post author

      > I continue to assert that religion and the trappings of religion have no place in the public sphere….

      On that I *STRONGLY* disagree.

      The public sphere is the property of *ALL* Canadians, including the religious ones. *NO* people, and no voices, should be excluded from the public sphere. *NONE*. Even if their presence annoys you, even if their message disgusts you, *EVERYONE* should have equal access to the public sphere, and equal right to express their opinions. The only thing that should not be tolerated in public dialogue is threats.

      I can only hope that when you say you want religion out of the public sphere, you’re just being sloppy with your terminology. The “public sphere” does not equal “the government”. The government itself should be secular, of course. But the public sphere should absolutely not.

      Frankly, I would much rather live in a country where people put their beliefs and motivations out in the open, where they can be discussed and scrutinized, than in one in which peoples’ beliefs and motivations are hidden. That includes religious beliefs and motivations. If someone’s motivation for – for example – denying rights to gay people is religious, I want that out in the open as a matter of public record. And if someone is *pretending* their motivation is secular when it’s really religious, I want the freedom to be able to point out their religious motivations, and to point out what may be that person’s *true* motivations.

      I don’t want to live in the country you want, where some people are forbidden to express their opinions in the public sphere. I don’t care how stupid their opinions are, or how much I disagree with them. And I don’t care whether their opinions are religious or not.

      > I also talk loudly and passionately about getting rid of Canada’s Multiculturalism Act, which accommodates religion and encourages religious expression in public….

      I’m curious: How exactly does the Multicultural Act do that? It doesn’t mention religion even once in its text.

      I mean, it *does* accommodate religion and religious expression, technically, in that there’s nothing in there that explicitly or implicitly *inhibits* it. But then, so does the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. So does the Financial Administration Act. *ANY* act that doesn’t specifically inhibit religion technically accommodates it.

      (Maybe I can use this to my advantage. My main focus during this month is on raising awareness against the TPP. Well guess what. The TPP accommodates religion. Can I thus count on your support in fighting it?)

      As for “encouraging religious expression in public”… where? The word “religion” and its cognates appear literally 4 times in the entire act, and *all* of them are in the preamble. And *all* of them are simply reaffirming what the Charter guarantees (literally!). All the Act does is state government policy and how it will be enforced… what part of that has *any* impact on what the general public chooses to do? I mean, that’s as ridiculous as saying that an Act to modernize technology in government offices therefore encourages people to walk around flaunting their iPads and Bluetooth headsets. It makes no damn sense at all.

      Assuming that it’s not just the *word* “multiculturalism” you hate, or some warped straw-man idea of multiculturalism pushed by right-wingers and fascists, then which *SPECIFIC* items of the Act do you object to? Which ones are so bad that it’s necessary to scrap the whole thing?

      > … and replacing it with an encompassing act that recognizes secularism as the over-riding Canadian ideology.

      I want government in Canada to be secular, and the Supreme Court has made it clear that it must be so. I don’t really see the need for an actual Act to spell it out, and I am not in the least bit comfortable with secularism becoming an “ideology”.

  2. Tim Underwood

    Canadian tax law is a great benefactor to all religious enterprises. Having all levels of government only concerned with us, without reference to any religious affiliation, isn’t a coercive ideology of any kind. It just stops governments from selectively patronizing NGO’s that encourage magical thinking.

    One day we may be able to attend a Remembrance Day ceremony without the annoyance of various witchdoctors’ supplications to the imaginary world of thin skinned Gods that for unintelligible reasons have to be defended by mechanized armies.

  3. billybob

    Government should be secular and it’s employees should not overtly display religious symbols or refuse service based
    on religious beliefs.

    I agree that the general public should be allowed to wear what they want but the problem quickly becomes tribalism and cults. This creates an us vs them mentality, not sure anything can be done about about that;it is just in our nature to be tribal.

    The problem is multiculturalism creates factions which currently do not cause major social problems, but if troubled times come, they will.

    Multiculturalism could be stated as multi-cults; it creates a divided society, not sure whether that is good or bad but
    it is a result of the decision to support multiculturalism.
    Probably it is ok until one group gains enough power that it can persecute other groups in the society.

    Think Sunni-Shia or homosexual-fundamentalist or teamA-teamB. Our nature is to support our group and denigrate other groups.
    There really is no such thing as agreeing to disagree.


    1. Indi Post author

      > Government should be secular and it’s employees should not overtly display religious symbols or refuse service based on religious beliefs.

      I say government should be secular, and people should be free to do as they damn well please so long as it doesn’t get in the way of them doing their jobs.

      > The problem is multiculturalism creates factions which currently do not cause major social problems, but if troubled times come, they will.

      Multiculturalism no more “creates factions” than racial inclusivity creates races. The factions are there regardless.

      What multiculturalism does is prevent those factions from being isolated sects by allowing them, and even encouraging them, to step out and interact with society at large.

      Without multiculturalism, people clump together into ethnic/cultural groups then build (metaphorical, usually) walls to isolate themselves from everyone else. This is bad for everyone in the group, but the ones who suffer the most are the most vulnerable, who are effectively cut off from all of the social services and support that is available in the society at large outside of the walls of their little ethnocultural island.

      With multiculturalism, people clump together into ethnic/cultural groups as before… but are then pulled into the wider society, where they are (by the definition of multiculturalism) treated with the same respect and dignity as any other people or group. The primary benefactors of this kind of integration are, again, the most vulnerable. When the message is “society at large accepts and welcomes you no matter who you are or what you believe”, well then it becomes a lot harder to argue to victims that they’re safer inside their abusive clique than out.

      It’s psychology 101 – it’s so basic it’s even common parenting advice: If you want people to break out of their shells and engage, you don’t antagonize them, you don’t disparage them or their feelings, and you don’t *force* them out; you let them stay in their comfort zone as long as they want, but make the place you *want* them to go as welcoming and inviting as possible.

      > Multiculturalism could be stated as multi-cults; it creates a divided society….

      The “divided society” myth is a myth that can only be believed if you believe there’s such a thing as a “unified society”.

      There is no such thing. There never has been, and nothing has ever even come close except the smallest, most homogenous societies. The idea that a society as large, as expansive, and as diverse – geographically, politically, culturally, and, yes, ethnically – as Canada can be a “unified society” is not just absurd, it’s offensively stupid.

      Canada will always be a society made up of many different cultures, each with their own quirks and their own set of concerns and interests. It’s time for all the anti-multiculturalists to grow up and face that fact. There will never be a magic wand we can wave to make everyone’s differences go away, and attempting to use *legislation* as such a magic wand is beyond foolhardy.

      What multiculturalism does is ask: “Okay, we all have different backgrounds and thus different perspectives, opinions, and concerns that arise from them, so how can we make a functional society out of them all together?” The sane answer is not “force them all to conform to a mythical ‘unified’ identity, defined by a small set of (mostly conservative) politicians”. The sane answer is: Let them be as they are, and open the public sphere to them all equally; let free, unrestricted discourse, communication, and interaction do the rest.

      You know, the really ironic thing about the “multi-cult” epithet is that it betrays the lack of thinking and insight by those who think it’s somehow legitimately representative of multiculturalism. Do you know what a “cult” really is? Like, the actual, real definition? It’s a group of people who are isolated from mainstream society and usually at odds with it. Stop and think about that for a second. Assuming multiculturalism is in full effect (and assuming this group of people don’t actually have values or practices that are unacceptable to mainstream society), then cults… can’t… exist. Seriously, think about it.

      Multiculturalism isn’t actually always properly adhered to in Canada. In Canada, Western European Christian traditions and values are still privileged over others, sometimes by (legal) force. That’s why we still have taboos about nudity and sex, for example. That’s also why hundreds of priests across dozens of regions and cities can rape kids by the bushel and Canadians barely bat an eyelash, but one Muslim woman wears a headscarf in a courtroom or one Sikh boy wants to wear a turban to play soccer and Canadians lose their shit. And by extension, that’s why some wacky, idiotic religious beliefs are broadly considered wacky and idiotic while others are revered.

      But just imagine for a moment what it would be like if multiculturalism were *properly* applied, universally, without Euro-Christian privilege. This would be a society where *ALL* religious beliefs are treated exactly the same way: politely tolerated (so long as they’re not straight-up unacceptable to our shared social values). No matter what the beliefs, adherents are given free reign to practice as they please, and even encouraged be open and up front about them, with the promise that they will face no judgement (again, assuming they’re not in violation of our shared values – I don’t want to keep repeating this, so just assume it follows just about every point from here on out).

      In that society… there can be no cults. Not unless the people forming the cult are *DOGGEDLY* determined to be a cult – as in, even though the doors of society are wide open to them, they *insist* on turning their backs on it, no matter what. There’s nothing that can be done to help such people, multiculturalism or no. But for everyone else, multiculturalism prevents the existence of cults. “What’s that? Think we’re all clones seeded on this planet by aliens? Hey, if that’s your thing, rock it, man!” “Oh? You believe that an evil overlord named Xenu trapped alien ghosts on Earth? Go ahead and tell us all about that bug-eyed motherfucker, dude!” “Hm? You say a super-cosmic entity impregnated a Palestinian virgin so it could ultimately torture itself to death to appease its own wrath? Hey, if you believe it, that’s cool, homie.” When all religious beliefs are equally welcome in open society, there can be no religious beliefs not welcome in open society, thus there can be no cults.

      So it’s more than a little ironic that anti-multiculturalists have settled on the term “multi-cult” as their epithet of choice, given that multiculturalism itself is antithetical to cults. (Not to mention that the pedigree of the term is a little… unsettling. As far as I’ve been able to track down, it was first coined on Stormfront.) But, whatever. From what I’ve seen of their rhetoric, it’s not like there are a lot of bright bulbs coming up with the ideas on the anti-multiculturalist side. I mean, these are the same bozos that protested anonymous voting.

      > Think Sunni-Shia or homosexual-fundamentalist or teamA-teamB.

      One of the core principles of multiculturalism that the antis just can’t seem to grasp is that multiculturalism isn’t just a willy-nilly free-for-fall where each group that comes into our society can just do whatever the fuck it pleases. Multiculturalism exists in the context of Canadian law, and the fundamental values underlying our law. You can bring your traditions and your values to Canada IF AND ONLY IF they do not contradict with our fundamental values. That has always been the definition of multiculturalism in Canada; it seems so bloody obvious that there shouldn’t be any point in saying it, yet here I am forced to qualify every fucking sentence with the fact.

      What part of Canadian law supports sectarian hate? What part of Canadian law supports bigotry based on sexual orientation?

      If some group wants to hate on some other group, how the fuck is ditching multiculturalism going to make that go away? Seriously. In what warped understanding of multiculturalism does multiculturalism create animosity between cultures? In what warped view of reality does suppressing or disrespecting people’s cultural heritage make longstanding cultural animosity go away?

      The US is the model for the “melting pot” idea, where everyone is encouraged to ditch their old cultural affiliations and just become “American”. How’s that working out when it comes to stopping animosity between religious groups? How’s it working out when it comes to the relationship between gay people and fundamentalists?

      Multiculturalism is not a panacea, and no one ever claimed it was. It can’t solve every single human problem that ever existed. In simple terms: haters gonna hate. If people really want to maintain traditional animosity or bigotry, no government policy is going to stop them from doing it; not multiculturalism, not anything else.

      What multiculturalism *DOES* promise, is to make it possible for *everyone* to participate in society without having to abandon their own identity and the things they consider important to it. You can consider yourself to be a Catholic of Polish descent, and still be Canadian. You can consider yourself an Algerian Muslim, and still be Canadian. You can consider yourself a freaking Jamaican Raëlian, and still be Canadian. And in all cases, you will be treated equally and with respect. You will not be told to change what you identify as to take part in Canadian society.

      In general, multiculturalism just says that when you step off the boat to join Canada, you’re free to bring whatever parts of your old identity you want along with you (so long as it doesn’t violate yadda yadda) or to leave behind whatever you please. In any case, you will be part of Canada, on equal footing with everyone else, regardless of whether their heritage has been Canadian for generations or if they got of the boat the day before you did. That’s all that multiculturalism is. It doesn’t end millenia-old sectarian hate. It doesn’t make fundamentalists stop being assholes. It doesn’t cure cancer. It just makes newcomers equal to everyone else, discourages enshrining any culture’s traditions and practices as privileged, and celebrates diversity.

      1. Tim Underwood

        I’m sure there are aspects of multicultural legislation that sound helpful. In the Canadian culture we already have total inclusion. Once you get your citizenship, you’re in. If you adhere to some set of magical beliefs, that’s fine. What is not fine is denigrating free speech and human rights, for any reason. There is no power above our law.

        What is comical about multiculturalism is it isn’t about high, or even modestly high culture. We already fully enjoy world music and humanistic philosophy. AS billybob alludes to, its about bringing myths into the public sphere and claiming that they are facts that somehow should interfere with Canadian culture. We already have enough of this crap from England and France that we should be getting rid of.

        I’m not sure of this but I think that multiculturalism is an English idea that started its life much like Canada’s old bifurcation. The Catholics in England couldn’t accept their own monarch to be at the head of the great Christian culture so to end the bloodshed the Catholics and Anglicans divided education and church up between themselves. In modern times this bad compromise had to be extended to Jews, Hindus and Muslims. It is a right mess now. One day they will accept that the French had a better idea.


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