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Alain Giguère

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65% of Canadians tell us they believe in God, while 49% consider their religious beliefs to be important to them (And St. Mathew Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach)

Categories: On my radar this week

Posted on 04-10-17 at 6:25 p.m.

Religious beliefs in continuous decline for almost 20 years!

For this Holy Week, I have decided to examine our data on the religious beliefs of Canadians. A substantial percentage of the public-49%, one in two Canadians-say that their religious beliefs are important to them. There are some interesting regional variations: the least religious reside in Québec and British Columbia (43%); the most religious, in Alberta and the Atlantic provinces (56%).

Nevertheless, the churches are empty. Religious belief seems more a case of cultural heritage than the expression of a sustained practice of worship. As such, the difference between believing God and religious beliefs is telling: people feel less need of a Church to "connect" with God.

The trends are telling, too. While 65% of Canadians say they believe in God, this percentage has been in continuous decline, down from 81% in 2005. A similar trend obtains for religious beliefs. The numbers who tell us that religion is important to them have dropped from 70% of the population in 2000 to 49% in 2017.


The future of religious beliefs in Canada

Despite the media attention given to religion as it relates to the influx of immigrants, in the population as a whole, religious beliefs have been steadily waning for nearly 20 years. Religious people are gradually disappearing from our lives. Whether we are talking about Protestants in English Canada or Catholics in Québec, the trend is the same. At this rate, "if trends continue," within a generation (25 years), religious beliefs could become a completely marginal phenomenon.

Of course, such a scenario is based on the current trend and doesn't account for the growing role of immigration in the coming years. Even so, the acculturation of immigrant children by the school system might still help maintain the trend. Even if immigration helps religious people maintain their weight in society, they will not be Christian. They will be Taoist, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslims, etc. And it will likely be a question of cultural heritage, a set of myths that give meaning to life without necessarily requiring ecclesiastical rites.

I admit that this scenario is based on the projection of current trends and that one must be cautious when attempting to predict the future. But we have been observing these trends for almost 20 years, and the younger people are in age, the less prevalent their religious beliefs (which surely offers some predictive value). Will immigration change the situation? We'll see.

Our relationship to the sacred

People tend to construct their own image of God, and he is more like a guardian angel than an "old man with a long white beard." A plurality of almost two out of five Canadians (37%), and the same percentage in Québec, believe in their own constructed image of God. Only 22% of Canadians believe in the God depicted by their church (14% in Québec).

On the other hand, a belief in a "force" that connects us to nature, the cosmos, the universe, is one of the strongest rising trends. We are witnessing a depersonalization of the divine, a kind of postmodern Buddhism that makes people feel that they are participating in the divine, that they are a part of it, just as nature is ("May the force be with you!"). Adherence to this pantheist vision has grown from 11% of the Canadian population in 1998 to 21% in 2016 (up from 14% to 28% in Québec).

Finally, atheism-a vision of life as merely a biological phenomenon-rose from 7% in 1998 to 20% in 2016 in Canada (from 8% to 21% in Québec).

Personal values and hot buttons as they relate to the divine

Examining people's values helps us better understand why the God of our churches is taking such a beating in popular beliefs. Those who believe in a traditional deity have very traditional and very conservative values. They respect the authority of institutions; they are fatalistic, have little control over their lives-and turn to God for leadership!

Those who construct their own personal God have difficulty living with the complexity and uncertainties of today's world. They feel potentially excluded from society, and threatened by it. Therefore, their God becomes a kind of guardian angel who watches over them.

The believers in a divine force and atheists, the two groups in continuous growth mode over the past 20 years, are in total ideological opposition to the Church (whether Catholic or Protestant). They reproach the Church for basing its role on prohibitions, submission, sin and punishment. They insist, to paraphrase Mr. Trudeau (the elder), that the Church has no place in people's bedrooms. They feel in full control of their lives, and aspire to independence and self-fulfillment.

A challenge for organized religion (especially the Christian, Catholic and Protestant Churches)

If they want to stay socially relevant, these institutions have some serious catching up to do to get back in sync with people's values. The gap between the tenets of organized religion and the reality of most people's lives has widened to an abyss! Only a tiny minority of Canadians believe in a Church-sanctioned God. Over the years, the notion of God has exploded into a myriad of different forms, culturally better adapted to the times.

This is an ironic situation if we consider Christ's message-to bring the subject back to Holy Week. Christ preached compassion, openness to others, kindness, generosity, selflessness and love, virtues that the Church does not represent for those who oppose the Church vision of God. But these virtues are precisely the ones so desperately needed in our times. Despite the marginalization of the Christian churches, perhaps these holy weeks can reconcile us to Christ's wisdom.

St. Mathew Passion by Johann Sebastien Bach

Of all the musical pieces appropriate for Holy Week, Bach's St. Mathew Passion is probably the most moving. This work oozes pain, tears and contrition. The excerpt I have chosen is in fact "the contrition aria": the mezzo-soprano sings the pain of the apostle Peter when he realizes that, as Christ predicted, before the cock crowed, he denied Christ three times ("I do not know this man"). Sublime!

J. S. Bach, St Matthew Passion, BWV244: Mark Padmore (Evangelist), Christian Gerhaher (Jesus), Camilla Tilling (soprano), Magdalena Kozena (mezzo-soprano), Topi Lehtipuu (tenor), Thomas Quasthoff (bass), Berliner Philharmoniker, Rundfunkchor Berlin, Knaben des Staats- und Domchors Berlin, Sir Simon Rattle, conducting; staging by Peter Sellars