From “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Holidays”

Christianity in Canada

New study tracks the changing role of Christianity in Canada over the past 25 years

As I duck into my office building, the snow is drifting down and a single trumpeter is on the corner playing Gloria in Excelsis Deo—Glory to God in the highest. It is what the angels sang when Christ was born, according to the song. It is a powerful reminder of Christmas past and Canada’s deep Christian heritage. But the role that Christianity played in Canada, even just 25 years ago, is very different from the role it plays today. A new study tracks the radically shifting nature of belief in Christianity in Canada.

Following WWII almost all Canadians were believers, and the vast majority were churchgoers. A 1946 Gallup survey reported that 67% of Canadians had attended church in the past 7 days, and a 1949 study found that 95% of Canadians believed in God. But that soon changed. Church attendance began a long slow fade, while faith in God remained constant. What did that mean for Christianity in Canada?

Fast forward to 1993, and Maclean’s magazine’s “special report: the religion poll.” “God is alive! Canada is a nation of believers” Maclean’s blared on the cover of its April 12, 1993 edition. “Most Canadians are committed Christians” the magazine avowed, based on surveys of over 4500 Canadians.

The 1993 research, lead by Dr. George Rawlyk of Queen’s University, Dr. Angus Reid of the Angus Reid Group and myself, came as a shock at the time. People knew that many had given up on the church, but what they didn’t know was that the vast majority had not given up on God and Christ. In 1993, eight in ten believed in God and more than six in ten agreed “that through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, God provided the way for the forgiveness of my sins.” But only 23% attended church weekly, just one third of what it was immediately following WWII.
Faith, in 1993, had become a private affair for most Canadians. People believed, but they did not belong. Christians were a silent majority, but largely untethered from the church. Revisiting this research 25 years later we find a very different Canada. Belief without belonging has largely faded. Christian believers have gone from majority to minority, and prayer and church attendance have become relatively uncommon. Canada can no longer be described as a nation of believers.

The percent of people who agree that “The concept of God is an old superstition that is no longer needed to explain things in these modern times” has doubled, from 22% in 1993 to 41% in 2018. The percent who believe “Jesus was crucified, died and was buried but was resurrected to eternal life” has declined from 67% in 1993 to 41% in 2018.

Religion gives meaning to life and death for many. To see such a significant shift in a relatively small slice of human history marks a profound transformation of our society. The upheaval is particularly pronounced amongst younger people. The widespread privatized faith of 1993 was generally not transmitted to the next generation. In the absence of a connection to Sunday school and other institutions teaching a Christian perspective, belief in God amongst those 18-34 shrank from 70% in 1993 to just 41% today. And faith in forgiveness through Christ slid from 58% to 28%, amongst this age group.

This is not to say that there are not believers in Canada. They are fewer in number and they tend to be older. Almost half of those who claim forgiveness through Christ are age 55 plus. And half of those who pray daily are Baby Boomers or older. Dr Reginald Bibby of the University of Lethbridge is a sociologist who has been diligently monitoring belief in Canada for many years. He characterizes the current state of belief as “polarized”—where we have minorities that are “pro-religious, low religious and no religious.”

Does this mean Christianity in Canada is doomed to fade away? Not at all. Radical change is always possible. The Great Awakening of the 18th century profoundly altered Canadian and American culture, fostering a great increase in Christian faith and fervour. Dr Rawlyk chronicled this in in his books on the evangelist Henry Alline, who was amongst those who drove the Great Awakening in Canada. The Great Awakening gave birth to the evangelical brand of Christianity that dominates churchgoing today. And its nexus in the Atlantic provinces is why—almost 250 years later—belief in Christianity is still much higher on our East coast than our West.

Some suggest the religious impulse may resurface in other guises. Political commentator Andrew Sullivan, writing in New York magazine, recently said “The need for meaning hasn’t gone away, but without Christianity, this yearning looks to politics for satisfaction. And religious impulses, once anchored in Christianity, find expression in various political cults.” He opines “the young adherents of the Great Awokening exhibit the zeal of the Great Awakening.”

Whether the politics of today truly replaces the faith of yesterday remains to be seen. But what is certain is that some of the beliefs that underpinned our society for hundreds of years are rapidly evolving. As Christmas rolls around this year it will mean diverse things for Canadians. For some it will be a merry Christmas, but for many others it will simply be “happy holidays.” It is difficult to predict where we will be in another 25 years, but the change in how faith shapes Canadian society is bound to be fascinating.

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