Demise of religion premature

Published May 1, 2002

WHEN Prof. Reginald Bibby read the results of his most-recent survey of religious trends in Canada, he couldn’t believe his eyes. He checked and re-checked his figures before admitting to himself, and then to the world in his latest book, that his previous forecasts of the demise of the Christian religion in Canada were dead wrong. Mr. Bibby, who has conducted what he calls a sociological survey of religion every five years since the 1970s, acknowledged that he was caught by surprise. Those surprises are reflected in his latest book, Restless Gods: the Renaissance of Religion in Canada (2002). “I checked and re-checked the figures and the sample, to make sure not too many conservative Protestants were in it, (to skew the results)” he said in an interview. Mr. Bibby hold the board of governors research chair in sociology at the University of Lethbridge, in Alberta, and is author of eight books, including Fragmented Gods, Unknown Gods, The Emerging Generation, Teen Trends and Canada’s Teens. He is also well known for his television appearances and presentations. In 1993 in Unknown Gods, he predicted a drop in attendance of 50 per cent among Anglicans alone by the year 2015 and forecast that Canadian society would soon have little patience for organized religion “Everyone including myself was buying in to a secularized notion that we would be close to England at between five and ten percent in church attendance before long,” Mr. Bibby said. The first tip-off that things were not as bleak as his first survey results indicated came with the National Youth Survey. A change from the “dominant secularization pattern” showed with the evangelicals. By the year 2000, 70 per cent of the kids are attending church weekly,” said Mr. Bibby, who was raised in the Baptist church. The startling results came from what Mr. Bibby calls the mainliners – the Uniteds, Anglicans, Presbyterians and Lutherans. In 1984 his survey showed 17 per cent attendance by teenagers, in 1992, 16 per cent, and then in 2000, it went up to 23 per cent. “The mainliners are doing a better job of hanging on to their kids,” he said. “The evangelicals seem to be growing like crazy, and they’ve done an even better job of holding onto their children.” Mr. Bibby sees youth attendance as the most significant forecasting factor for future church attendance. The mainliners, he said, are doing a better job now than in the recent past. In the mainline churches, he said, “there is more of a conscious effort of ministry to young people. They have full time youth ministers. The Roman Catholics have picked up on it and so has the United Church.” The key for the future, he said, is the 18 to 34 age group. “Even if the core is smaller, it’s a relatively committed core. When it’s less attractive to attend church, ironically that’s when the church will attract those most committed to it. Then things have the potential for revitalization.” Chances are, he added, that group will then bring their children along with them. Mr. Bibby defended his about-face in predicting the future health of organized religion in Canada. “At my best, I try to be led by the data. I have no axe to grind. I made the earlier predictions because the findings were very negative. If my earlier projections had held it would have been a very bleak picture indeed.” His findings show that Canadians have not been dropping out of existing, established groups and going for alternatives such as New Age beliefs in any great numbers, he added. “There will always be a place for religion (in our society,)” he said. Asked why he made the word God plural in his title, Mr. Bibby said “when I talk about the gods, there is an openness to reality beyond ourselves, but I don’t want it to look as though I am pushing God.” God, he noted, “is doing incredibly well in the polls.” In his book, he says that established churches (Anglican, United, Presbyterians, Lutherans and Roman Catholics) have “name-brand credibility” and thousands and thousands of members that are slow to go elsewhere.


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