In fact, a survey by the Angus Reid Institute released just before Easter revealed 81 per cent of Canadians are either committed believers (21 per cent), “privately faithful” or, at worst, spiritually uncertain.
Fewer than one in five of us identify as outright non-believers.
The news gets even better with a Léger Marketing poll from mid-March showing fully two-thirds of Canadians say relations between the vast religious majority and the relatively small non-religious minority are positive.
When it comes to faith specific groups, relations between Jews and non-Jews are seen in an equally welcome light. The darker cloud in the Léger numbers touches Islam and Muslims in Canada.
For example, in Quebec, in the aftermath of the killings in a Quebec City mosque last winter, only 50 per cent of Quebecers still have a positive view of Muslims, and barely a third have a positive view of Islam.
Even there, however, perspective is important. As Jack Jedwab of the Association of Canadian Studies points out, the Léger survey refutes the conventional wisdom that debates about religious accommodation are fuelled by a desire to expand secularism in Canadian society.
“That doesn’t seem to be borne out by the data,” Jedwab told The Montreal Gazette.
Public impressions — however inaccurate — of the content of Islam and the conduct of Muslims are behind antipathy toward it. It can’t be extrapolated into a generalized conflict between Canada’s religiously faithful and secularizing social forces, Jedwab said.
None of which is to deny, in the words of my Cardus colleague Ray Pennings, that religion “has an image problem” in Canada.
“About half of Canadians polled say they’re uncomfortable around those who are religiously devout,” says the executive vice-president of the think tank Cardus.
“Throw in terms like born-again, theology and evangelism and just 15 per cent of respondents associate the words with a positive meaning,” Pennings adds.
Those numbers come from the latest Angus Reid Institute survey, a major polling partnership Cardus is undertaking through its Faith in Canada 150 program.
As Pennings notes, the negative reaction is at odds with the benefits Canadians of all faiths bring to the society around them. The Angus Reid numbers show more than half of non-believers are uninvolved in community activities. For the religiously committed, that number plunges to about 17 per cent.
Such numbers should easily dispel religion’s “image problem.” So, why don’t they?
I’ve argued it’s partly because of the stubborn superstition in media, academic and bureaucratic circles that religious belief is either a holdover from primitive stages of human evolution or the refuge of weak-minded, irrational ’fraidy cats. But part of the responsibility must be laid at the feet of people of faith ourselves for missing the glorious opportunity that Canada’s flourishing of faith traditions offers us.
I do not mean merely undertaking what is conventionally meant by the stomach fluttering phrase “inter-faith dialogue.” Faith is the operative word, for the exercise isn’t to debunk or meld all traditions into one syncretistic mess. Rather it is to grasp faith for what faith is: the outcome of the inherent religious sense that makes us all fully human.
In caricatures of faith created during the last century, our religious sense was forecast to disappear under the combined weight of economic perfection and unstoppable scientific progress. The falsity of that caricature has been indisputable for decades. We know, and the latest survey data again affirms, that religious faith will be here as long as human beings are on Earth.
Through understanding each other as people of faith, we can move faith itself beyond any image, beyond even data, to the lived experience of Canadians.
(Stockland is publisher of Convivium.ca and a senior fellow with Cardus.)