Faith on the rise among boomers

Published December 1, 2006

Anyone who thinks that organized religion in Canada is dying “would be wise to think again,” says sociologist Reginald Bibby.

Mainline Protestants (Anglican, United, Lutheran and Presbyterians) in Canada have collectively experienced an increase in monthly-plus attendance in church services since a decade ago, from 26 per cent in 1995 to 31 per cent in 2005, according to Mr. Bibby of Alberta’s University of Lethbridge.

In his latest book, The Boomer Factor: What Canada’s Most Famous Generation is Leaving Behind, Mr. Bibby – who has been monitoring social trends in Canada for 30 years – said that while most observers have assumed that the “Mainliners” (whose numbers dropped to 20 per cent in 2001 from 50 per cent in 1931) have been losing adherents to evangelical groups and increasing secularization, the reality is that “they weren’t having enough kids and their immigration pipeline was going dry.”

Roman Catholics in Canada, on the other hand, have seen a “new source” of life in recent decades largely due to immigration from Asia, Europe, South America and Africa, noted Mr. Bibby. In 2005, monthly attendance among Roman Catholics was 53 per cent.

The steadiest presence has, however, been highest among evangelicals or conservative Protestants, including Baptist, Pentecostal, Alliance, Mennonite denominations, and other independent congregations with no official denominational ties. Evangelicals may be experiencing their Golden Age now, he said. “Dating back to the first census in 1871, and through 2001, evangelicals have made up a consistent 8 per cent of the Canadian population,” said Mr. Bibby. “While that may not sound like growth, simply being able to stay up with the population and retain their ‘market share’ has been quite an accomplishment.”

Evangelicals appear to “do a very effective job of retaining their children, as well as their people, as they move from place to place – two very problematic areas for Mainline Protestants in particular,” said Mr. Bibby.

The secret to their success? “Emphasis on solid ministries to families, from nurseries and Sunday schools at the beginning and on to teenage and young adult programs and then to activities for seniors,” he added.

There is no reason, Mr. Bibby said, for well-established Mainliners “not to be able to turn things around,” noting that since the 1990s, “these groups have had a renewed sense of their need to minister better to young people, beginning with their youth.”

The reality also is that, although the pews may not show it, “God continues to do well in the polls,” said Mr. Bibby.

[pullquote]While only 25 per cent say they attend religious services on a weekly basis across Canada, Mr. Bibby noted that a Gallup survey conducted in 2005 found that 43 per cent had been to a service in the past six months, excluding attendance at weddings, funerals or special holidays.

He added that a General Social Survey conducted by Statistics Canada in 2004 found that in terms of “social engagement,” more and more Canadians (30 per cent) are involved in religious-led activities, “marginally ahead of participation in sports and recreational groups, followed by union and professional group activities.”

The 2001 Census, on the other hand, “reminds religious organizations that 84 per cent of the population continues to identify with the traditions they represent,” said Mr. Bibby. (Canadians who identified themselves as Anglicans numbered 2,035,495, representing the third largest denomination or 7 per cent of the population. Roman Catholics ranked first, at 12,793,125 or 43 per cent and United Church represented the second largest, at 2,839,125 or 10 per cent.)

Mr. Bibby also said that beyond expressing a belief in God, his surveys over the years have shown that Canadians “have been making a number of claims for some time that need to be noted,” among them, that “God or a higher power cares about [them] personally.” About 30 per cent said they pray privately each day, and an additional 20 per cent said they pray privately at least once a week, he added.

Since 1975, when he began his surveys, Mr. Bibby said “a fairly consistent proportion of Cana-dians – between 43 per cent and 49 per cent – have acknowledged they “definitely” have or “think” they have “experienced God’s presence.”

Other indicators, according to Mr. Bibby, that baby boomer Canadians are preoccupied with matters besides mammon:

  • More than 90 per cent of people across the country say they question “the purpose of life;” one in four Canadians say the question of life’s purpose “troubles them a fair amount.”
  • Approximately three in four across the country agree that they have spiritual needs. “Women are more likely than men to indicate spiritual needs, regardless of age (78 per cent versus 66 per cent),” noted Mr. Bibby. “Still, gender differences aside, solid majorities of two in three males in each of the three age cohorts say they have spiritual needs.”
  • More than half (53 per cent) described spirituality in conventional terms (“God,” “prayer,” “religion,” and “a power beyond”); 47 per cent, meanwhile, expressed less conventional ideas (“inner self,” “oneness,” “force,” and “soul”).

Mr. Bibby’s book, which examines the attitudes, beliefs, behavior and aspirations of the eight million Canadians born between 1946 and 1965, was published in the fall.


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