Ray Pennings: Does Canada have a religion problem?

Most people hold to some view of the transcendent, and yet many do not understand sincere expressions of religious faith

It was a tweet in response to a Vice article about a rash of arsons, the burning of Catholic churches around the country in light of the ongoing discovery of unmarked graves of Indigenous children on the grounds of residential schools.

“Burn it all down,” tweeted Harsha Walia, the now-former head of the BC Civil Liberties Association. The Internet responded, in its usual unnuanced way, with vicious condemnation, although Walia insisted afterward that her comments were taken “out of context.” That the idiomatic term “burn it all down” was apparently intended to be received in a metaphorical, decolonial context was perhaps lost on those very literally burning churches to the ground.

Walia subsequently resigned, and amid this latest furor, the rest of us are left to ask: How does the burning of at least 25 churches in the past few weeks contribute to the reconciliation and repair required to answer such evil?

Indigenous leaders have been among the most outspoken in condemning the arsons. Jenn Allan-Riley, an Indigenous pastor and daughter of a residential school survivor, told CTV, “burning down churches is not in solidarity with us Indigenous people.” Chief Clarence Louie told the New York Times, “I don’t believe in the church. I don’t believe in those symbols, but some of our people do.” Likewise, former senator Murray Sinclair took to social media to castigate those behind the fires, noting that “they set back any chance of moving the dialogue on changing the bad relationship.”

Perhaps the context for understanding church burnings needs to be broader.

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In June, the headlines were all about the Afzaals, a Muslim family in London, Ont. that was fatally attacked in what police allege was a heinous religiously-motivated hate crime: Nathaniel Veltman now faces murder and terrorism charges. Meanwhile, in May, the news carried multiple reports of anti-Semitic demonstrations and vandalism at synagogues. Although the Hamas-Israeli political conflict was the immediate context, it was part of an ongoing pattern. In 2019, there were 296 hate-motivated crimes against Jewish people, more than any other group in Canada, although StatCan suggests that 608 of the 1,946 hate-based incidents that year had anti-religious motivation.     

Hatred is often motivated by complicated factors, but it’s hard to ignore at least one unifying thread between many of these seemingly distinct outbursts of violence. Perhaps Canada has a religion problem. Or, more precisely, perhaps this country suffers from an anti-religion problem.

The conventional narrative is that Canadians who pray and believe in miracles belong to the “once upon a time” fairytale world, and that a pluralistic secular society like Canada is mostly past its religious phase. To be sure, with 11 percent of the population attending a place of worship weekly and about 20 percent once per month or so — at least pre-COVID — the influence of institutional religion is certainly not what it was several decades ago. But religion is more pervasive than most realize.

In partnership with the Angus-Reid Institute, Cardus has been measuring Canadian spirituality. We asked about seven practices — belief in God’s existence, prayer, reading a scripture, participating in worship, believing in an afterlife, having religious experiences, teaching your kids about faith. We termed the 16 percent who do at least six of these “religiously committed” and the 19 percent who do zero or one “non-believers.” That leaves the 64 per cent of Canadians in the middle — neither devoutly religious, nor religiously indifferent. They’re a big chunk of the 86 per cent of Canadians who pray at least monthly. 

But many religious Canadians, of various faiths, don’t necessarily feel it’s safe to be public about their beliefs. In 2019 more than one in five Canadians agreed Canadian society “shuts out” their “personal values and faith.” When religion and ethnicity are combined, especially with conspicuous religious dress as is the case with Sikhs and many Muslims, many religious Canadians have the added challenge being viewed as “damaging to society” by an alarming number of their fellow citizens. 

Angus Reid Institute analysts note, “Those who are Religiously Committed are the most respectful and appreciative of other religious groups.” They add, “As religiosity declines, appreciation for other groups correspondingly declines to the point where non-believers feel that no other group is of net benefit to society other than Atheists.”

As important as residential schools are as context for church-burnings, it is even more pertinent to consider the targeting of religious institutions in the context of a significant and intensifying trend. We’ve lost the ability to discuss faith publicly, using the vocabulary and posture of civility and respect.

Sadly, this means for many — religious and non-believers — the religious identity of groups other than our own is unintelligible. We use the shorthand of public symbols, dress, practices, or opinions on contentious social issues to define our religiously different neighbours. Occasionally we note their involvement in soup kitchens, refugee sponsorship, or addiction treatment programs. We forget that these activities are consequences of faith and an outflow of religious identity.

Canada is a pluralist society. With that comes difference. We need to make serious efforts to learn about each other.

This isn’t just for governments. It starts with overcoming social antagonism to public expressions of religious faith. The 62 per cent of Canadians who are uncomfortable with colleagues wearing religious symbols at work are more significant in this discussion than Parliamentary motions. We need to overcome the “God in public” problem:  "We Canadians are uncomfortable with matters of faith. We can mock God or use His name in vain without censure, but we seem to be incapable of engaging with sincere expressions of spirituality and religiosity in the public sphere. 

Yet most people live life with some view of the transcendent, and their beliefs will inevitably will show up in politics, daily headlines, or even neighbours chatting across the fence. That’s just as true for our Indigenous neighbours and friends.

On a personal level, we won’t make progress unless we force some hard conversations in the open. These are an antidote to suppressed misunderstanding and hate that burst into crimes. Living alongside each other in a multicultural society means dialogue. We don’t need to agree. We do need to listen and learn enough to understand and show civil respect for the various perspectives that make up our public square.

Once we do that, most Canadians will be pleasantly surprised to learn how faith and faith communities are a much more significant part of our social fabric than they realize. Some of the biggest and most famous hospitals in Canada would not exist today without the Jewish or Christian communities that started them. No government needed to ask them to do this. They did so as a religious expression. Yet, Angus Reid institute polling for Cardus has found one in five Canadians were unaware of faith communities’ role in establishing these facilities.

Even greater proportions of Canadians admit they don’t know about the decades of work by religious groups to set up seniors care, special needs programs, or health clinics across the country. Often operating under the radar, religion in Canada actually contributes an estimated $67 billion into Canada’s economy every year.

Canadians need to remember the long and positive role of religious faith in society — both in the past and today. This begins with public and open-hearted conversations about our deep and fundamental differences. We must overcome our antagonism toward public expression of faith, and cure our amnesia about faith’s role in Canadian society.

Better yet, we’d see even less of the hate that leads to murders like the one in London. And we’d less of the hate that leads to arson attacks on churches. That’s a better Canada we can all help build.  Action must follow our words.

Ray Pennings is Co-Founder and Executive Vice-President of social policy thinktank Cardus (www.cardus.ca).

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