ResearchCo finds amazing number of atheists in Canada

by | January 11, 2021

, Vancouver-based ResearchCo released an interesting report titled “Religious Adherence Differs Greatly in Canada and United States”. Well that sounds right up our alley, so let’s dive right in!

The report is based on online surveys done between of 1,000 Canadians and 1,200 Americans, so the margin of error is roughly ±3%. A lot of the report is about the comparisons between Canadians and Americans… but I have to admit I’m powerfully disinterested in comparing us to the Yanks. Instead, I want to focus on just the Canadian results.

The survey was 6 questions, some of which were holiday-themed:

  1. How important is each of the following to you personally?
    • Country
    • Family
    • Religion
    • Friends
    • Career
    • Affluence
  2. On the issue of spirituality, how would you describe yourself—would you say you are…
    • Very spiritual
    • Moderately spiritual
    • Not too spiritual
    • Not spiritual at all
    • Not sure
  3. Which of the following best describes your religious faith?
  4. How often do you attend religious gatherings (e.g. church, temple, synagogue etc.)?
  5. Which of these greetings is the one you personally prefer for this season?
    • Merry Christmas
    • Happy Holidays
    • Not sure / Don’t care either way
  6. How do you expect the current holiday season to be for you, personally?
    • More fun than stressful
    • More stressful than fun
    • Not sure

How important is religion to Canadians?

Let’s start with the first question: “How important is each of the following to you personally?” Each option could be answered with:

  • Very important
  • Moderately important
  • Not too important
  • Not important at all

The overall results were:

 Very importantModerately importantNot too importantNot important at all
[Chart based on data in table above.]

Religion comes in second last in the “very important” group, behind only affluence. However, it wins overall, by quite a significant lead, in the “not important at all” group. Overall, religion just isn’t important to Canadians at all; more than half say it’s either not too important or not important at all.

There’s mostly no surprises in the breakdown of these results:

  Canada Gender Age Region 2019 federal election vote
Male Female 18–34 35–54 55+ BC Alberta SK / MB Ontario Québec Atlantic Liberal Conservative NDP
Very important24%21%27%31%23%22%25%26%29%25%17%18%26%29%14%
Moderately important24%25%23%19%27%24%22%22%23%21%32%30%27%25%23%
Not too important23%24%21%20%23%23%21%23%24%25%23%18%21%21%26%
Not important at all29%30%28%30%26%31%32%28%24%29%28%33%26%25%37%
[Chart based on data in table above.]

Although, it is interesting how young Canadians are so split, both saying that religion is very important and not important at all. I’m not sure how to parse that, because young Canadians are generally very disinterested in religion. What we might be seeing is an artifact of their disdain for religion. In other words, it’s not “it is important that people are religious” so much as it is “religion is an important thing to watch out for because it’s a big red flag”. But that’s just speculation.

I’m going to skip the “spiritual” question because the term is so fuzzy. Sometimes it’s a synonym for “religious”, sometimes hard-core materialists describe themselves as “spiritual” with the meaning that they just have a sense of wonder. If no-one knows what the word means, the results of a survey asking about it will be meaningless.

I’m also not going to bother with the religious gatherings, holiday greetings, or the question about stress. They’re all either obvious or irrelevant.

How many Canadian atheists are there?

But the question about religious identification is interesting, because ResearchCo did something that so few pollsters do, but that I’d really like to see more of. Most pollsters simply list the major religions, and then offer “none of the above”, so atheists are forced to lump themselves in with everyone else who can’t or won’t fit into a typical religious group. This is making polls based on religious identification increasingly nonsensical, because atheists are becoming a larger and larger group, and they do not fit together in the same category as esoteric religions or hippy-dippy “it’s not a religion, it’s a worldview” religions.

Happily, ResearchCo has separated atheists (and agnostics!) into their own group, and the result is consistent with what we’ve seen elsewhere: around 10% of Canadians are straight-up atheists, no piss-assing around with alternative, “softer” terms like “agnostic”, “nontheist”, or even “humanist”.

Canada Gender Age Region 2019 federal election vote
Male Female 18–34 35–54 55+ BC Alberta SK / MB Ontario Québec Atlantic Liberal Conservative NDP
None of these16%13%19%20%20%12%22%18%16%15%10%15%12%14%19%
[Chart based on data in table above.]

There’s quite a lot in there that’s interesting. Atheists—straight-up atheists—are the largest group after Christians and “Nones”… far larger than any other religious group; roughly 3× larger than any of them.

In fact, atheists—straight-up atheists—are in third or fourth place—sometimes coming after agnostics—in every demographic group, sometimes by way more than the margin of error.

[Chart based on data in table above.]

The groups that have the most atheists are young Canadians (no surprise there), then NDP supporters, and then… Albertans. Yeah, I was surprised, too. I never would have pegged Alberta for being the most atheist province, but there it is. Québec was close behind. I think there’s a particular phenomenon causing this—and the surprisingly large number of atheist Conservative voters, but I’ll get back to that in a bit.

But the thing is, there are a lot atheists who refuse to label themselves as such. I suspect virtually all of the “agnostics” are atheists in fact. And I suspect a portion of the “nones” are also atheists… though, probably only a small portion, maybe less than a quarter. (And, of course, there are probably large fractions of every religious group that are actually atheists in fact, but still choose to identify with a religious group for one reason or another. I’ll be ignoring that phenomenon here.)

If we take atheists and agnostics combined, and maybe allow a titch from the “nones” groups, then the picture becomes even more amazing.

Because now the most atheist province is… Ontario, with BC close behind. Alberta falls to third place, and Québec to last, as the least atheist province in Canada.

I think I understand what’s going on in Alberta and Québec (and among Conservative voters). Note that they have rather large “atheist” groups… but extremely small “agnostic” groups. I think what we’re seeing is a manifestation of extremism, or polarization, arising out of the politicization of religion in those provinces. I think the reason atheists in those provinces are more likely to take on the “stronger” identification of “atheist”—as opposed to “weaker” atheist identifications like “agnostic”, “humanist”, and so on—is because religiosity has become politically-charged, and they are reacting to that. In other words, there are actually fewer atheists in those provinces, but they are more likely to adopt the explicit label as a political action. Whereas in other provinces there are more atheists, but they don’t feel obligated to take a hard stance, so they are more likely to adopt a “weaker” atheist label, like “agnostic” or “humanist”. (I think this same idea, to a lesser extent, also explains the difference between males and females; I think there are roughly equal numbers of atheist males and females, but males are more likely to adopt the more contentious “atheist” label, while females prefer less confrontational labels.)

Christians—which is all Christians combined, Catholic and Protestant—don’t even break 60%. But even more amazing is what’s happening with young Canadians: only 33% of 18–34 year-olds identify as Christian. Wow. More young Canadians identify as some flavour of atheist or “none” than Christian! And not just a few more, a lot more: 41% versus 33%. The only areas where Christian dominance seems unmoved is Québec and Atlantic Canada, and among Conservative voters (and the olds, of course). Christians are just barely under 50% in BC, and among NDP voters… and, to my amazement, just barely over 50% in Ontario.

I’m honestly flabbergasted by some of these results. I’ve always known atheists are tragically underestimated; most polls don’t even bother to acknowledge them, preferring instead to lump them into the “nones”, but even when they are explicitly counted there are still a lot of social and cultural pressures to not identify as atheist. And yet, for all that, we can still count huge numbers of atheists in Canada, far, far more than any other minority religious group. It says a lot about the socio-cultural disdain for atheists that, with these numbers, we’re not taken more seriously as a political force.

I’m curious to whether any of these numbers surprised you, or if you have any alternative theories that explain them.

3 thoughts on “ResearchCo finds amazing number of atheists in Canada

  1. shane newman

    We are the black sheep of the family, because we can actually think for ourselves, and do not need a organization to tell us what to think.

  2. Albert Howard

    Atheist groups should launch a petition to our national broadcaster, objecting to the blatant attempt to promote acceptance of Islam, through the presence of a brain-washed young woman wearing religious garb on its national newscast. Islam’s holy book refers to women only in the third party – by instructing men on how they should be treated; including how to beat them (Surah 4, 34). If religious symbols are to be accepted, on the excuse of “freedom…”, then let symbols of rational thought and atheism prevail as well. Atheists and agnostics are 16% of the population – compared to the 3% of Muslims. I would be happy to join in a petition effort, and look forward to any response.
    Albert Howard


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