Canada·In Depth

Keeping faith: The changing face of religion in Canada

When the time came to say good-bye to her late husband, Marie Diane Dodd knew a traditional church service wasn't the right fit. In the ceremony she chose, there was no mention of God or religion. Organized religion isn't on the ropes in Canada. But the reality is changing.

Many immigrants come to Canada and bring their religion with them

When the sad time came to say good-bye to her late husband, Marie Diane Dodd knew a traditional service in a church wasn't the right fit.

So she arranged a ceremony at the family's lakeside summer home outside Ottawa.

It featured John's favourite memories and music, including a guitar riff by Jimi Hendrix.

There were happy photos from summer holidays and sentimental recollections from friends and his children about a life well lived, before it was tragically cut short by liver disease brought on by Hepatitis C.

What wasn't part of the ceremony was any mention of God or religion. 

Words of comfort

"I think John would have loved this because he wasn't a religious man," says Marie Diane Dodd.

"This was just the right fit for him. It was something he could feel comfortable with."

Simon Parcher, an officiant with Humanist Canada, performed the service and says in an increasingly secular world, God is being pushed aside, even in death.

"We don't tell people they'll have life after they die in heaven, but we do tell them they will continue in memories, which they will," says Parcher.

"There's no father up in the sky taking care of things for us," he adds. "We have to take care of ourselves."

The words he chose during the service were designed to bring comfort, he says, but not to suggest there's anything more beyond human existence.

Atheism's rise in Canada

"Life exists in the time period between birth and death," Parcher told those at the cottage that day.

"Life's significance lies in the experiences and satisfactions in that span of time. Its permanence lies in the memories of those who knew us."

Humanists in Ontario perform roughly 1,000 such ceremonies every year in Ontario. That's just two per cent of funeral services in the province, but the number is growing quickly, Parcher says.

Indeed, an online survey on religion released in March by the Angus Reid Institute suggests that the percentage of God-denying Canadians has doubled from six per cent of the population in the 1970s to 13 per cent now — with about one in four Canadians saying they're inclined to reject religion.

The CBC reached out to the Dodd family and several other Canadians as part of an in-depth look at the extent to which Canadians are keeping their faith.

Canadian churches facing uphill battle

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The oldest church in Canada's oldest incorporated city is up for sale.

The situation facing Susan Jack's Anglican parish in Saint John, N. B., is representative of many Christian Protestant denominations across Canada.

"We have an aging congregation, people who gave money are dying and few people are coming to church," says Jack,  standing next to the "For Sale" sign on the lawn of her beloved St.George's-St.Jude's Church.

At 193 years old, it is one of the oldest churches in Canada, but its days as a place of worship are numbered.

The $30,000-a-year heating costs simply made the building unaffordable.

So Jack says the ever-shrinking congregation is looking to reinvent itself.

The church has long served meals to the underprivileged on Sundays in Saint John, so Jack says the focus may shift to doing more such outreach work.

"Now we get a chance to redefine ourselves, to look for more cost-effective worship space and ways to do outreach in the community."

Other Protestant denominations are facing similar, if not more daunting challenges.

In March, a report on the future of the United Church of Canada recommended a dramatic reduction of buildings and overhead in order to save $11 million over the next two years.

Previously, the church had reported that it was either closing or amalgamating roughly 50 churches a year.

Evangelicals, Catholics bucking trend away from organized religion

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University of Lethbridge sociologist Reginald W. Bibby has spent several decades surveying Canadians about their attitudes on faith.

He isn't optimistic about a Protestant turnaround anytime soon.

"The United Church, the Anglicans, the Presbyterians and the Lutherans were all being fed with these wonderful immigration pipelines for an awfully long time with people coming from Europe."

"What's happened," says Bibby, "is those pipelines have been shut down.  And the reality is unless those groups do some proselytizing, they are going to continue to decline rapidly as far as numbers."

Proselytizing — not to mention their often livelier church services — may have helped some Evangelical Christians buck that downward trend.

The Angus Reid survey, which Bibby co-designed, suggests roughly 12 per cent of Canadians are members of an Evangelical group, and unlike other Protestant groups, that percentage has kept relatively constant with population growth.

Immigrants bringing faith to Canada

Immigrants bringing faith to Canada

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Sikhs are one of the youngest religious groups in Canada.

Catholics, as well as non-traditional religions in Canada, such as Muslims, Sikhs and Buddhists, have fared far better than Protestants in terms of overall numbers.

Roughly, one in five immigrants — particularly those from the Philippines and South America — come to Canada and bring their Catholic faith with them.

"No question the whole religious scene in Canada has been lit up a lot by immigration," says Bibby.

So, in spite of an overall drift away from organized religion, he notes there are are some religious hot spots. 

'He didn't believe in the afterlife. I do.'

And when times are toughest, such as for the Dodd family, the need to seek comfort in spirituality is especially hard to shake.

At the conclusion of the "godless" ceremony at the cottage that day, both Marie Diane and her 24-year-old son James read poignant poems.

"You are my guardian angel. I don't want to say good bye. But we will meet again one day," she said of her late husband.

"He (John) didn't believe in the afterlife. I do. I hope he'll be with me till my dying day," Marie Diane told us.

Simon Parcher, the humanist officiant, said he understands that some people are comforted by such thoughts, even if atheists reject them.

"But if it makes (those grieving) feel better, we just let it go."

The Angus Reid Institute survey was an online survey conducted from March 4-11 2015, among a representative randomized sample of 3,041 Canadian adults who were members of the Angus Reid Forum.


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