Canadians losing faith in religion

Many link traditional institutions with religious conflict, survey finds.

It’s no secret fewer Canadians attend church today than 20 years ago, but what may be surprising is almost half of Canadians believe religion does more harm than good, according to the results of a survey conducted by Ipsos Reid.

Explanations from experts vary – from fear of extremists and anger toward individuals who abuse positions of power, to a national “forgetting” of Canadian history.

“In the past few years, there have been several high-profile international situations involving perceived religious conflicts, as well as the anniversary of 9/11, and I think when people see those, it causes them to fear religion and to see it as a source of conflict,” said Janet Epp Buckingham, associate professor at Trinity Western University in Ottawa.

Religion seems to be a key player in many of today’s top stories, from stand-alone events – such as the 2005 riots in the suburbs of Paris linked to the French government’s proposed burka ban, and rightwing Christian Anders Behring Breivik’s shooting rampage in Oslo, Norway – to more drawn-out sagas, such as child abuse in the Catholic Church, and the perception that Christians are constantly campaigning against gay marriage and abortion.

Canadians who don’t participate in religion themselves experience it in the news, which can sensationalize the negatives aspects of religion, said Dr. Pamela Dickey Young, the principal of the School of Religion at Queen’s University, in Kingston, Ont.

Dickey Young said that had the survey asked if religious people did more harm than good, the answer would have been very different.

“To me, that means people think religion is harmful, but people who are religious aren’t particularly harmful,” she said.

The survey, which was conducted ahead of the launch of a new Global TV show – Context – about religion in Canada, also found that 89 per cent of Canadians are comfortable being around people of different faiths.

Dickey Young said when she asks most of her firstyear students if they’re religious, they say no. When she asks if they are spiritual, they say yes.

She said this follows a general trend among Canadians who are turning away from organized religion – which is seen as a concrete set of pre-ordained rules – in favour of a more personalized spiritual journey.

But, on the question of whether religion does more harm than good, Rev. Canon Dr. Bill Prentice said: “We forget our history.”

He pointed out that the first hospitals, schools and universities in Canada were founded by religious institutions, or at the very least, have a religious foundation.

Prentice, director of Community Ministry for the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa, said churches continue to “do good works” across the country, managing food banks, social programs, and helping the country’s homeless find shelter.

These charities “would not exist if the churches pulled out because the volunteer sector in the religious communities does work that wouldn’t otherwise go on,” he said.

“I think we take for granted all the positive things that religious institutions are doing in our society, because they’re working in the background and they’re working with marginalized people,” said Epp Buckingham.

“They’re the first on the ground when there’s a humanitarian disaster or a tornado or a hurricane, and they’re often the unsung heroes.”

Dan Merkur, a visiting scholar in the department for the study of religion at the University of Toronto, said he thinks there are massive changes happening in organized religion worldwide.

In the 1960s and ’70s, he said, most clergy tried to “rationalize” religion by making it logical. But these days, he said, the trend is toward social work and counselling, suggesting that clergy “want to listen to people and help them through their troubles.”

This, said Merkur, could be a reaction to fewer people in the pews, or it could be the natural course of religious philosophy.

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