From Wednesday’s Globe and Mail
Millions of Canadians are secretly more religious than they let on, murmuring prayers, meditating and reading sacred texts in the privacy of their homes but staying away from formal worship, Statistics Canada said yesterday.
Using data from Statscan’s 2002 Ethnic Diversity Study, the agency said that while only one-third of adult Canadians attend religious services at least monthly, more than half engage in religious activities of their own at least monthly.
The agency’s report, published in the journal Canadian Social Trends, will likely become part of the heated debate among religion sociologists over whether Canada is becoming more or less secular.
According to the report’s authors, senior Statscan analysts Warren Clark and Grant Schellenberg, the findings indicate that adult Canadians attach a higher degree of importance to religion than religious attendance figures alone would indicate.
Thus while they acknowledge that public religious behaviour, religious affiliation and attendance are declining in Canada, they say this captures only one aspect of peoples’ religiosity.
Their report places Statscan in the same camp as Canada’s best-known sociologist of religion, University of Lethbridge’s Reginald Bibby, and British sociologist Grace Davies at the University of Exeter, both of whom argue that declining religious observance does not mean a decline in religiosity.
Professor Davies made her case in a well-known 1994 book, Believing Without Belonging. Prof. Bibby, author of Restless Gods and Restless Churches, has gone further and argued recently that the decline in worship attendance has bottomed out and that religious institutions are starting to reattract wayward sheep.
Other religion social scientists in Canada and Europe, such as University of Dundee’s Callum Brown, author of The Death of Christian Britain, have argued that the sheep are beyond reach and the decline in attendance is irreversible.
Prof. Stuart Macdonald of University of Toronto’s Knox College, a leading academic specialist on the post-war Canadian church, says a number of scholars today are looking at church members belonging without believing rather than the other way around.
The ticklish issue in the Statscan report is what constitutes a private religious activity.
Mr. Clark, in an interview, said survey respondents were asked whether they engaged in private religious activities such as prayer, meditation and reading sacred texts, and then were left on their own to define what those activities were and whether they qualified as religious.
Mr. Clark said Canadians were asked about private religious activities for the first time in 2002 because Statscan “wanted to get closer to Canadians’ religiosity.”
Prof. Macdonald said there is not going to be consensus on whether “saying a little prayer” in one’s home constitutes a private religious activity. But he said there are a lot of people who think that private religious activity is a valid way of measuring religiosity and a method of examining whether the institution of organized religion is turning people off.
The Statscan report, titled “Who’s Religious?” says the likelihood of people engaging in private religious activities is more prevalent among older Canadians and those who also attended religious services.
It also says immigrants are more likely to engage in private religious practices and attend religious services than the Canadian-born population.
But the report says: “Most striking was the proportion of Canadians who infrequently or never attend services, yet regularly engage in personal religious practices.
“Of those who infrequently attended religious services over the year prior to the survey, 37 per cent said they engaged in religious practices on their own on a weekly basis. And of those who had not attended any religious services over the previous year, 27 per cent said they engaged in weekly religious practices on their own.”
I have commented to this article here at the Globe and Mail.