Canadian Ambivalence Towards Religion


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. 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

Further, the questionnaire strikes me as overtly biased towards Christianity, which discredits a lot of its results.

For example, participants are asked if they know “That Jesus was the Divine Son of God,” and “Who denied Jesus three times?” Clearly non-Christians either won’t know or won’t agree. But it isn’t clear what the latter question suggests – is religion dependent on scriptural knowledge? Is faith superior to that knowledge? Does it matter to faith whether you can remember the details of the story?

And as for the former – many non-Christian faiths accept Jesus as a prophet, but not the Messiah (i.e. Islam). Saying no doesn’t mean someone is any more or less religious.

Questions 14a through 14d ask participants to  select from a list of religions that differentiate orthodox Christian sects, but not similar sects of Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist faiths:

Roman Catholic, United Church, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, Pentecostal, Other evangelical Christian, Other Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Sikh, Buddhist, No religious identity, Other (please specify)

Yet the distinction between, say, Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, or Orthodox and Reform Jews is arguably equal to or even greater than that between Anglican and Catholic. And no one who has read any news in the past three decades can be unaware of the differences between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslim sects, if nothing more than in the violent, often lethal, disagreements between them.

Mormons, Quakers, Sufis, Ba’hais and Taoists, aren’t even mentioned. These and other religions are patronizingly categorized as “other.”

Participants are asked to agree or disagree with the following statements (question 15). See if you can spot the bias. My comments are in parentheses and italics:

  • My parents felt that they were “supposed to go to church” (Church is a Christian institution; Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists don’t “go to church”)
  • The Ten Commandments still apply today (This a set of ancient Jewish principles was somewhat adopted by Christians; the first four are religious strictures that have no relevance outside Judeo-Christianity, the fifth is vague and open to interpretation, and only the last five relate to any generic law or social interaction – but what does “covet” mean? NB. the numbering depends on your sect)
  • Generally speaking, I feel a bit uncomfortable around people who are religiously devout
  • Generally speaking, I feel a bit uncomfortable around people who have no use for religion (What’s the point of these? Being uncomfortable doesn’t mean you are more or less religious; it may be the proselytizing behaviour of the others that the respondent finds uncomfortable).
  • It is not necessary to believe in God in order to be moral & have good values (which god? Usually this capitalized form refers to the Judeo-Christian deity – what about Marduk? Baal? Thor? Zeus? Ganesh? Is belief in them considered?)
  • It is not necessary to “go to church” in order to be moral & have good values (Church is a Christian institution – see above)
  • I prefer to live life without God or congregation (Congregation is a term usually referring to Christian worship).
  • I think the growth in atheism is a good thing for life in Canada (I cannot find any reference that explains to the participants what sort of growth is meant – what is the basis for this claim?)
  • I think Pope Francis is having a positive impact on the world (Clearly a Catholic reference – and what sort of impact is he having on China? India? Tibet? Japan? Or are they outside the “world”?)
  • Christianity is more likely than other religions to encourage violence (why is it single here when question 14 breaks Christianity into numerous sects? Could one sect be more violent than the others?)
  • Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence (again, which sect?)
  • I think the decline in religious involvement has been a bad thing for Canada (What decline? shouldn’t claims be accompanied by fact or statistics?)
  • I think that religion’s overall impact on the world is positive (Does that mean all religions? including Satanic, Wiccan, Scientology and Aum Shinrikyo?)
  • I’d be open to more involvement with religious groups if I found it worthwhile (ditto – involved with ANY religious group? How about the Peoples’ Temple group? Heaven’s Gate? Branch Davidian Seventh-Day Adventists?)

If you don’t attend church because it’s a Christian institution, even if you’re religious in another faith, or you don’t subscribe to the Ten Commandments as a moral law, can you answer these questions properly?

Look at the analysis on the Angus Reid website. The numbers don’t make sense – possibly because the poll was so poorly worded and biased.

About a quarter of the way down the page, you’ll find a table of “Some Characteristics of Canadians Who Are Embracing Religion,Compared with Other Canadians.” This really struck me as odd. Five percent of people who say they reject religion say grace, 14% pray, 6% read the Bible or Qu’ran (but no mention of the Dhammapada, Bhagavad Gita or other sacred texts), 12% say they feel “strengthened” by their faith (what faith can someone who rejects religion have?), and 9% say they experience “God’s presence” (again, which god is not stated but it is assumed to be the Judeo-Christian deity – but how can they who reject religion have this effect?).

You’ll find similar results below in the sections “Some Characteristics of Canadians Who Are Ambivalent About Religion,Compared with Other Canadians” but curiously there is no similar analysis for those who “reject religion.”

Six percent of people who allegedly reject religion still have a high confidence in religious leaders, and 63% think Pope Francis is having a positive impact on the world; 53% think the Ten Commandments are applicable, 11% that the decline in religion is bad for Canada and 15% think religion has overall been good for the world.

Doesn’t any of that make you wonder what’s going on?

If you reject religion, you would normally do or feel none of these things. Atheists don’t pray. People who reject religion – apparently 26% of Canadians – don’t attend church services, read the Bible or Qu’ran (aside from educational or scholarly reasons). They aren’t strengthened by faith because by definition, they don’t have any, and they DON’T experience any deity’s presence. But that’s NOT what the numbers show.

I suspect some fudging here – not necessarily by Angus Reid, but by the participants. Saying you reject religion then saying the Ten Commandments still applies is a cunning way to skew the results to suggest the T.C. are valid for everyone, even atheists. I’d argue Angus Reid created an incredible poll – as in it has no credibility – based on the questions it posed and the bias in them.

Other figures in the results show a disturbing persistence of superstition and belief in the supernatural (my comments in parentheses):

  • 66% of Canadians believe in life after death;
  • 63% believe in heaven (which makes me wonder where the other 3% think they go after death);
  • 50% think we can communicate with the spirit world (which is why ‘psychics’ continue to con Canadians in such high numbers);
  • 43% believe we can communicate with people who have died (ditto);
  • 42% of us believe in hell (which is odd given the number who believe in heaven and the afterlife);
  • 62% believe in angels (pretty much a Christian superstition);
  • 56% “report that they feel they have had times in their lives when they have been protected by a guardian angel” (ditto);
  • 51% believe that some people have psychic powers (just tattoo the word ‘sucker’ on their foreheads);
  • 49% of adults “maintain that they personally have experienced an event before it happened (precognition).” (ditto)
  • 69% believe in “miraculous healing” (probably where the wingnut anti-vaccination movement draws its support…);
  • and 35% of Canadians believe in astrology (one third of us are willing and eager to be hoaxed… which explains some election results, I suppose…).

Our belief in pseudoscience and superstition explains a lot why a lot of balderdash, fad diets, conspiracy theories and other codswallop continue to suck us in online. Far, far too many Canadians believe in such claptrap without any factual or logical basis.

Yet 26% of respondents declared they were neither religious nor spiritual. Which means that many people who are apparently not religious believe in heaven, hell, miracles and angels… doesn’t anyone else see a contradiction here? Why would non-religious people claim a belief in a superstition or myth that is religious in nature?

And why aren’t we told how these beliefs in superstition, the supernatural and pseudoscience align with people’s attitude towards religion? Are those inclined to embrace religion more likely to embrace psychics and astrology? Or those who reject it? I think that’s important data, but it seems to be missing in the analysis. You have to read the more detailled report to get those answers (The answer: religious people embrace miracles, superstition, astrology, reincarnation, angels and psychics more than those who are not religious.)

Towards the middle of the analysis, you’ll see that 27% of respondents classify themselves as neither spiritual nor religious – so who are the others who make up that 1%?; and that 39% consider themselves ‘spiritual not religious’ and 10% as ‘religious not spiritual’ – the remaining 24% both religious and spiritual. Of those who claim to reject religion (26% of respondents), 41% say they are ‘spiritual not religious’ which further highlights the need to properly define these terms before asking questions.

The report notes:

Canadians may not be as inclined as they once were to adopt religion as a total package, complete with conventional beliefs, practices, and teachings. That said, the Angus Reid Institute poll reveals the majority of people across the country nonetheless continue to hold on to religious bits and pieces, picking and choosing from a wide range of items that are available in a lively spiritual and religious marketplace.

Yet by asking them to select from specific, orthodox categories, the poll leads people by the nose to agree they believe in very specific packages: Roman Catholic, United Church, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, Pentecostal are particular “packages” one can’t cherry-pick from. I’ve never heard of, say, a Catholic accepting the church but rejecting the authority of the church.

It suggests to me that many of these believers add onto their core, “package” beliefs by assuming belief in such fringe concepts as astrology, angels, psychics and other supernatural follies. Religious people, as shown above, tend to accept those beliefs more than non-religious people, probably because they already believe in the supernatural.

(The webpage calls them ‘psychic phenomena’ but this is incorrect – a phenomenon is an observable fact or event experienced through the senses, where so-called psychic events are simply imaginary).

So Angus Reid’s new survey on Canadian religion is, to me, a flawed, biased, methodological mess that tells us little about the religious and spiritual landscape here. It has some interesting data, but overall, it just doesn’t cut the mustard.

It deserves barely more respect than  the trite internet polls conducted by local bloggers in which they and their 20 followers gleefully respond a dozen times each.

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