While Canadians are quite divided on the role religious and faith communities have played in Canada’s history and development, they tend to view the impact of religious institutions on their own communities more positively, according to a recent poll.
An average of 45% of Canadians view religious and faith communities as having a good (or more good than bad) impact on the development of their community, according to the poll conducted by conducted by Angus Reid Institute in partnership with Faith in Canada 150, an interfaith organization dedicated to celebrating and promoting the role of faith in Canadian life, which is backed by Cardus, a Canadian Christian think tank.
However, of the same sample, only 35% believe the overall contribution of religious and faith communities in Canada’s history and development has been good, with 21% responding that it has been more bad than good. The largest group, 44%, saw it as being a mix.
“Canadians tend to see the presence of churches and other religious buildings in their communities and to feel that that is generally something that enhances rather than detracts from their communities,” said Ian Holliday, an Angus Reid research associate who worked on the poll.
“When we ask about sort of broader, national questions about the role that religious and faith communities have played in shaping Canadian identity…you find much less goodwill.”
Holiday said a number of factors likely contribute to the apparent disconnect between people’s views on the presence of faith groups in their local communities and the impact of religion at provincial and national levels.
When asked about religion’s impact on a national scale, Holiday said respondents are more likely to think of large-scale issues that often have negative associations, like the sex abuse scandals in the Catholic church, for example.
If asked about the role of religion in their own communities, they are more likely to think about local matters that might not carry the same taint.
But there are also distinctly Canadian factors at play, namely the complicity of religious institutions in the Indian residential school system.
Only 9% of Canadians view religious and faith communities’ involvement with residential schools as having been positive, with 58% seeing it as negative. (Twenty per cent said it was a mix of good and bad, and 13% said they were not aware of any past role.)
“In the case of residential schools, you find a general hostility on the part of the general public toward the role that religion played in that policy,” said Holliday.
These views tended to carry over to more general opinions about how religious and faith communities have impacted Indigenous peoples. On average, 37% of Canadians view religious and faith communities’ involvement with Indigenous peoples since Confederation as being negative, and only 14% describe it as positive.
However, Holiday noted that when it comes to questions of faith, “there really is no such thing as an average Canadian.” Responses differ, and at some points differ dramatically between those who regularly attend services and view religion as being a major part of their identity and those who consider themselves non-believers.
For example, though 45% of Canadians believe that religious and faith communities have had a good impact on the development of their communities, that number rises to 76% among those who are religiously committed and sinks to 16% among non-believers.
For this reason, the poll sub-divides the population into categories of religiously committed, privately faithful, spiritually uncertain and non-believers, to provide a more fine-grained analysis of how different parts of the population responded to the questions.
As a rule, the religiously committed tend to view the impact of religion in the most positive light, and non-believers tend to see it as being more negative.
Still, even non-believers have a generally positive view of the role of faith groups in providing services to their communities. When it comes to developing social services, 35% said they had a positive impact, 31% that it was a mix of good and bad, with 11% saying it was negative. Regarding community programs, 25% saw it as positive, 27% as a mix and 9% as negative.
The poll is part of an ongoing project between Angus Reid and Faith in Canada 150 to explore the role religion and spirituality have played in the past 150 years of Canadian history.