A new Angus Reid poll underscores the changing, ambivalent nature of Canadian attitudes towards religion, but there are many things about the poll that concern me and make me question its methodology and whether an inherent bias influenced the results.
First of all, what is “religion”? That may seem obvious, but there are conflicting definitions, and often religion is used interchangeably with the terms faith and belief, although that is incorrect usage and they are, in fact, different.
I think it’s important to be clear when asking people about religion exactly what you mean by the word ‘religion’ – and I cannot find anywhere in the questionnaire that this was defined. It is, however defined on the analysis webpage. But was it explained to respondents?
For me, religion is generally the organizational structure and hierarchy – political, social, cultural – that creates the framework in which faith and belief operate. People sometimes reject religion – the controlling organization – without rejecting faith itself.
Wikipedia defines religion with a broad brush but it ignores the political, controlling structure:
…an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence.
Dictionary.com adds this, but again missing the hierarchical nature of religion:
…a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
Google’s search produced this definition, which is far too narrow, since it excludes Buddhism and other non-theistic practices:
…the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.
Search online for the definition of religion and you will quickly discover how wide-ranging the definitions are, and that many of them do not agree on basics. For example, many definitions include belief in supernatural beings, rituals, a distinction between sacred and profane objects and acts, and prayer. But these are traits of some religions, not a definition of religion itself.
Nor was the word “spiritual” defined (again it is on the analysis webpage), although question four asks people to define whether they are spiritual or religious. Yet the term spiritual is even more vague and fraught with complexities than religion, in that it can mean “…almost any kind of meaningful activity or blissful experience… a process of transformation, but in a context separate from organized religious institutions… a blend of humanistic psychology, mystical and esoteric traditions and eastern religions.”
Here’s what Angus Reid has chosen for its definitions as per its web page, both of which strike me as very narrow and restrictive. Their definition of religion would exclude Buddhism and Taoism, for example, since neither include supreme beings. And the soul is a contentious definition because (aside from not being defined here), it assumes a belief in one. And is spirit the same as, say, team spirit, so baseball is a spiritual activity on the same plane as meditation? To me, this is both sloppy and vague.
It remains unclear whether these definitions were presented to participants:
Spiritual: of, relating to, or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.
Religious: relating to or believing in a religion…forming part of someone’s thought about or worship of a divine being