Image of the Canadian Flag

Religion in Canada: Its Development and Contemporary Situation

Roger O'Toole / University of Toronto

This article originally appeared in volume 43, no. 1, of Social Compass (1996). The Directors of the American Religious Experience wish to express their gratitude to the Editor of Social Compass and Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, London, and New Delhi, which granted permission to republish this article. Permission has been granted provided this is not extended for use through a third party commercial provider, (such third party requests for use of material from the journal should be forwarded to the publisher).

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Bien que semblable aux autres sociétés industrielles avancées dans ses aspects religieux contemporains, le Canada fait montre de quelques variations notoires dans certains thèmes familiers, variations qui résultent de l'héritage social et culturel particulier au pays. Cet essai retrace d'abord un modèle de développement religieux qui diffère de façon bien marquée de celui des Etats-Unis; la discussion présente ensuite une revue de topiques tels que la condition des principales églises, la croissance du conservatisme religieux dit "évangelicalisme", l'appel des "Nouvelles Religions", l'expansion rapide des croyances orientales non-chrétiennes et l'absence d'une religion civile nationale. Finalement, on attire l'attention sur le caractère fragmentaire et "consommateur" de la vie religieuse au Canada à la veille du vingt-et-unième siècle.


In 1873, the British social reformer, Florence Nightingale inquired: "What will be our religion in 1999?" (Schwartz, 1990: 270) Subject to their usual interpretive diversity, sociologists will shortly be in a position to answer her question. On the eve of a new millennium, there is an inevitable inclination to engage in cultural stock-taking. In true fin de siècle spirit, therefore, the following discussion sketches the main outlines of the religious situation in Canada at a juncture where the arithmetic of time predisposes us to peer, Janus-like, both backward and forward.


"For three decades, Canadian political and cultural life has been intermittently dominated by evolving permutations of Quebec separatism, regional disaffection, constitutional reform and the quest for a distinctive national identity.

Canada is a vast and physically diverse country but its small population of 29 million clusters in the shadow of that "longest undefended border in the world" which separates it from the approximately 260 million inhabitants of the United States. A constitutional monarchy confederated in 1867 under the religiously-inspired title of "dominion", this nation originates in the political fusion of "two founding races" though it now embraces a far broader mosaic of indigenous and immigrant groups. Tracing its ancestry to France, Britain and the United States, Canada has, for much of its history, incorporated "two solitudes" of a linguistic, religious and cultural character, a situation only partly mitigated by official bilingualism, relentless secularization and rampant Americanization respectively. While a depiction of Canada as "two nations warring in the bosom of the same state" is a profound exaggeration, the contemporary political significance of Francophone and Anglophone differences requires no elaboration (Guindon, 1988: 125). While Canada is now less prone to a garrison mentality inspired by its powerful southern neighbour, its citizens, both Anglophone and Francophone, retain a deep-seated ambivalence toward Americans and "The American Way of Life". This wariness persists despite the numerous political, economic, legal and cultural changes which, in recent decades, have notably intensified Canadians' resemblance to their U.S. counterparts (Lipset, 1990).

For three decades, Canadian political and cultural life has been intermittently dominated by evolving permutations of Quebec separatism, regional disaffection, constitutional reform and the quest for a distinctive national identity. Preoccupation with such matters, however, has neither lessened ordinary Canadians' desire for the more prosaic and tangible rewards of high income and an enviable quality of life nor, until recently, has it markedly diminished their ability to achieve them. La révolution tranquille which occurred in the province of Quebec was by no means the only quiet revolution effecting the transformation of Canada from the 1960s to the 1990s. During this period, overall prosperity combined with massive expansion of the welfare state, liberalized immigration policy and an official federal goal of multiculturalism to change the national social profile fundamentally. Another quiet revolution, a decade old is still in process as painfully prolonged economic recession, massive government debt, privatization of state-run enterprises, high unemployment, business re-structuring and reduction of social services all conspire to lower Canadians' expectations and dampen their traditionally optimistic assessments of the future. In common with other countries in the Western world, the predominant mood of Canada at the end of the millennium is one of insecurity, anxiety and trepidation.


A product of the unique geography and history of the land and its peoples, Canadian religion exhibits its own characteristic features at the same time as it manifests many of the typical patterns associated with the religious activities of contemporary post-industrial societies. In similar vein, while sharing much in common with the religious life of its nearest neighbour, Canada boasts significant national and regional deviation from the American norm. More generally, of course, the drama of Canadian religiosity is enacted, as elsewhere, against a familiar backdrop of disenchantment and secularization: the grand narrative which has preoccupied sociology from its very beginnings.

Although the importance of Canadian religion has been, with few exceptions, greatly underestimated by both sociologists and historians, its crucial role in the nation's development now appears, if somewhat belatedly, to have attained more widespread recognition (McGowan, 1990). If it is acknowledged that "Canada from the beginning has been a strongly religious nation", it follows that "no real understanding of the forms and values of Canadian society is possible without a knowledge of the diverse religious convictions, organizations and experience that have substantially shaped this society". No attempt to map the contours of contemporary Canadian religion can avoid noting many stark contrasts with the nineteenth-century religious panorama. Nor, indeed, can it escape innumerable encounters with the Victorian religious legacy whether in sacred or secular contexts. In the broadest sense, the vitality of Victorian Christianity has profoundly shaped the character or identity of the nation. Thus, many features of modern Canadian life including the political party system, the welfare state, foreign policy goals and a distinct "law and order" bias arguably originate, at least in part, in religious ideas, attitudes and structures which are now quite unfamiliar to contemporary Canadian Christians (O'Toole, 1982).

Perhaps the most enduring bequest of Victorian Christianity to its religiously committed descendants has been in the realm of form rather than content. The nineteenth-century "churching of Canada" differed significantly from the corresponding process witnessed in the United States (Finke and Stark, 1992) and, as a consequence, the anatomy of contemporary Canadian religion bears less resemblance to its American correlative than might initially or superficially be supposed. In this respect, the evolution of Canadian religion has followed a European rather than an American model, in keeping with a characteristic Canadian reluctance, both French and English, to abandon the ties of ancestral authority in a revolutionary American manner. Steeped in the heroic mythology of religious dissent and constitutionally celebrating the separation of church and state, the United States has long accommodated the sect as its predominant and paradigmatic mode of religious organization. In contrast, Canadian religion boasts manifestly establishmentarian roots. Though sectarianism has undoubtedly played a vital and vigorous minor role, it has been large churches with strong links to powerful political, business and cultural elites which have dominated Canadian religious experience since their importation. Thus, while acknowledging its religious diversity, one scholar has described Canada as "a society where Christian traditions with historical roots in Britain and Western Europe dominate the demography of religious identity from Newfoundland to British Columbia" (Simpson, 1988: 351).

Translation of these differences into the terms of the currently fashionable subdisciplinary market paradigm (Warner, 1993; Beyer, 1994) produces an image of the United States as an arena of religious free competition. North of the border, however, all indicators proclaim a condition of protracted religious oligopoly in the nation as a whole while the province of Quebec displays near-monopoly in the religious realm. If "much of the history of religion in Canada is the story of conflict, competition and accommodation between Roman Catholics, the United Church of Canada ... and the Anglicans," the "domination of churches and denominations", especially these so-called "big three", is still arguably the paramount characteristic of organized religion in this country (Simpson, 1988: 351; Nock, 1993: 47-53). Approximately two-thirds of Canadians identify themselves with one or other of these bodies and, while this proportion has diminished slightly over the last three decades, it remains, nonetheless, a singularly striking statistic.

The justifiable scrutiny so far accorded the distinctive form and intriguing demographics of Canadian denominationalism should not be allowed to distract attention entirely from a fact so obvious that it appears almost redundant: the Canadian Christian heritage itself. For, despite the inroads of secularization, an evident crisis of religious commitment and an expanding non-European presence in its population, Canada undoubtedly remains remarkably Christian in a broad sense of that term (Statistics Canada, 1993; Maclean's, 1993). Although less than a third of Canadians regularly attend religious services, an overwhelming number describe themselves as Christians while significant majorities subscribe in varying degrees to specific doctrinal beliefs and articles of the Christian faith. While clearly important in itself, a recent expansion in the numbers of those embracing religions other than Christianity, together with an increase of those professing no religion whatsoever, has not appreciably altered this state of affairs. In the Canadian religious context, therefore, two major cleavages are clearly apparent. The first separates a large, self-described Christian majority (over 80%) from a very small non-Christian and non-religious minority while the second divides a majority (approximately 80%) loyal to the three major denominations from a minority owing allegiance to other variants of Christianity (Statistics Canada, 1993; Maclean's, 1993).


The precise boundaries of "mainline" Canadian religiosity are inevitably unclear and cogent arguments may be advanced for inclusion of Presbyterian, Lutheran, Baptist and Eastern Orthodox organizations under this rubric (Nock, 1993: 48). Whoever else is incorporated, however, Roman Catholics, Anglicans and the United Church of Canada are undoubtedly the dominant components.

Involved in the first explorations of this vast land in the sixteenth century and integral to the foundation of the colony of New France, Roman Catholicism has long constituted a commanding presence on the Canadian scene (Guindon, 1988: 103-111; Beyer, 1993). Legally enstated under the Crown by the Quebec Act of 1774 and the Constitutional Act of 1791, it has enjoyed something of a moral monopoly in Francophone Quebec until very recently. In unofficial concordat with local forces of reaction and expressing hostility to capitalism, industry, cities, liberalism, republicanism and other aspects of the protestant-modernist axis, this conservative ultramontane church exercised an almost theocratic control over most aspects of Quebec's rural and urban life until the middle of the present century.

Beginning a century ago, progressive industrialization and urbanization culminated in the province's "Quiet Revolution" of the 1960s. Occurring alongside the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, the political modernization and social transformation of this period sounded the death knell of the old, omnipresent ecclesiastical order. The Quebec church, accordingly, experienced an accelerating decline and a profound crisis which necessitated its virtual metamorphosis. During the last thirty-five years, the speed and intensity of Quebec secularization have been unmatched in any other province. The change in fortune of the triumphalist church whose power and grandeur have been undermined by this process has been so dramatic that it is not inappropriate to refer to its exile or abdication from the centre of Canadian Francophone life. Displaced institutionally by the state in its prime fields of activity (Zylberberg and Coté, 1993), beset by a perpetual vocational recruitment crisis and experiencing a drastic decline in the participation and commitment of its members, the church has struggled to redefine its role in reduced circumstances. Confronted less by hostility than by widespread indifference, it now plays a truncated, marginal and diffuse part both in its members' lives and in society as a whole. Within this more restricted sphere of influence, however, its efforts have not gone entirely unrewarded. Whereas in the 1960s nearly 90% of Quebec Catholics claimed to attend church services regularly, attendance figures now fluctuate within the 25-30% range (Bibby, 1993: 172; Beyer, 1993: 153). Despite their clear reluctance to enter their churches, however, Québécois adamantly refuse to resign their membership. Thus, approximately 86%, a vast majority of the provincial population, continues to identify itself, in some sense, as Roman Catholic while dissenting in significant numbers from official church teaching on such matters as birth-control, legalized abortion and premarital sexual activity (Maclean's, 1993: 49).

For its devoted and regular participants, the experience of membership has altered considerably over the last thirty years. The triumphal intolerance, aloofness, conservatism and rigidity of an organization confident of its power and influence have given way, in large measure, to liturgical flexibility, ecumenical dialogue and a compassionate concern for social justice which frequently demands that long-standing and extensive charitable activity be supplemented by radical political involvement. For the less committed and selectively obedient, it is the parochial school rather than the parish church which offers some institutional focus for an otherwise nebulous sense of Catholic identity. Though education is now under the secular control of the provincial government, the majority of Quebec schools remain under church administration. Thus, while they may rarely attend church themselves, most Quebec parents enrol their children in schools which provide explicit instruction in the Catholic faith. The paradox of empty pews and crowded classrooms provides an appropriate symbol of the new reality of Quebec Catholicism as an essentially cultural matter. Insisting that Catholicism "représente toujours la référence religieuse normale de la très grande majorité de la population", Raymond Lemieux (1990) suggests that, in contemporary life, it has acquired a multi-faceted character. It has become a diffuse, churchless faith which simultaneously supports a vague, almost subliminal civil religion of reassuring familiarity and a privatized popular religiosity whose discrete spiritual quests evoke and involve "religious effervescence, emotional communion, affirmation of universal values (and) explosion of the imaginary." However, while such an amorphous religion clearly "transgresses the institution which gave birth to it", Lemieux pointedly refuses to pass the death sentence on the organized church. In his view, this body still, "although grappling with its own quest for identity, remains the natural referent in the quest for meaning of the very great majority" (Lemieux, 1990: 163-164) in a province, it might be added, whose motto is "je me souviens".

"In trying to cope simultaneously with the secularized indifference of the many and the spiritual zealotry of the few, Canadian Catholicism provides a paradigm case of the dilemmas of the mainstream denomination in contemporary society.

Though Roman Catholicism ceased to be a Francophone monopoly in British North America at least a century-and-a-half ago, the Quebec church has long represented such a significant component of Canadian Catholicism that it might be termed, in the language of recent constitutional negotiations, a "distinct society" within a wider ecclesiastical community. In order to view this situation in proper perspective, attention must now be focussed on the role of the church in English Canada and the place of Catholicism in the nation as a whole. While resting on foundations laid by a "first wave" of immigration emanating from France, the Canadian Catholic community is, in its entirety, the product of sources as diverse as might be expected in a body which lays claim to universality. From early in the nineteenth century, massive Irish immigration swelled the church's ranks creating internal ethnic and linguistic division as it simultaneously inflamed the animosities between Catholics and Protestants. As ultramontane and politically adept as their Francophone brethren, Irish clerics were to dominate an Anglophone minority church in an inhospitable Protestant environment for more than a century. Though their influence has not evaporated it has been heavily diluted since World War II as further surges of immigration, initially from south and central Europe and subsequently from Latin America and Asia, have again radically altered the ethnic composition of Canadian Catholicism.

Numbering over twelve million and comprising 45% of the Canadian population, Roman Catholics are now the largest religious group in Canada. Moreover, a majority (52.5%) of Catholics now resides outside the province of Quebec thus providing justification for regarding the Roman Catholic church as Canada's leading denomination in a truly national sense (Statistics Canada, 1993). This rise in fortune has not been a matter of numbers alone, for a century of struggle has been rewarded with a high degree of economic advancement and status enhancement in all spheres of life. Even in the old Protestant heartland of Ontario, Catholicism is now eminently respectable. Nevertheless, for Canadian Catholics, the satisfaction of outnumbering Protestants and challenging their old social hegemony is somewhat guarded. It has come at a moment of profound internal crisis in an era when insubstantial cultural allegiance appears to be displacing active religious commitment in all major religious denominations. With regular attendance below 40% (Maclean's, 1993: 48; Bibby, 1993: 172), chronic shortages among clergy and widespread dissent from church teaching on contraception, clerical celibacy and the role of women, Canadian Catholicism is no longer the monolithic moral presence it once was. Such is the erosion of church authority that the recent papal encylical Evangelium Vitae is likely to be greeted, in many quarters, with even greater indifference than the ill-fated Humanae Vitae of a quarter-century ago.

In these circumstances, the church has been forced into sober and realistic assessment of priorities culminating in a strategy combining denominational détente with an emphais on social justice (Cuneo, 1989: 168-178; Hewitt, 1993: 253-271). In adapting to the reality of religion's growing marginality, it has found itself bound in common cause with other major denominations at the same time as it has become (appropriately enough) increasingly aligned with the socially marginal and disposessed. Struggling to maintain its role as a powerful participant within an ecumenical consensus grounded in a Christian version of progressive liberalism, the Canadian Roman Catholic hierarchy attempts to chart a course between traditionalist, revivalist and militant pro-life forces on its right and the liberation theologians, social justice vanguard and radical church reformers on its left. In trying to cope simultaneously with the secularized indifference of the many and the spiritual zealotry of the few, Canadian Catholicism provides a paradigm case of the dilemmas of the mainstream denomination in contemporary society.

Perhaps more than any other religious group in Canada, the Anglican church has confronted the difficulty of adaptation to reduced circumstances. In retreating from the religious and political centre of society, it has attempted to make a virtue out of necessity by embracing denominationalism, ecumenism and multiculturalism while renouncing establishmentarian elitism and privilege. An effective presence since the 1763 Treaty of Paris ceded most of the Franco-American empire to Britain, the Anglican church (officially known as the Church of England in Canada until 1955) has decidedly establishment origins. Officially recognized as a legally established church by the Constitutional Act of 1791, the Anglican church was viewed as a vital conservative bulwark against revolution, republicanism and representationalism in His Majesty's reduced and reorganized American possessions. Despite legal, social and economic advantages, Anglicanism never evolved into the naturally acknowledged Church of Canada envisioned by a British elite in the wake of U.S. independence. Encouraged by statutory guarantees of religious tolerance, a powerful Roman Catholic presence in Lower Canada and a rapidly expanding Methodist movement in the newly settled lands of Upper Canada rendered such monopolistic designs abortive. Thus, although Anglicanism retained a certain social status and elite influence, it acknowledged the denominational character of Canadian religious life long before its legal disestablishment by the Clergy Reserves Act of 1854. In contrast to its privileged position in the mother country, Canadian Anglicanism has long lived without legal leverage in the competition for souls. For more than a century, however, it retained considerable strength as the most culturally appropriate or "natural" religious affiliation for the many immigrant Britons who professed no other specific religious allegiance. More recently, the Anglican church has faced the harsh reality of a perpetual membership crisis. Its continuous decline since World War II has accompanied significant reduction in British immigration apportionment as well as the weakening of Canadian political, economic and cultural ties with the United Kingdom.

Canada's approximately two million Anglicans now constitute only 8% of the nation's population having declined steadily over the last fifty years from a figure representing nearby double that proportion. Though nearly half of all Anglicans are resident in Ontario, they are represented most strongly in Newfoundland (the nation's newest province) where they constitute over a quarter of the population. By contrast, only 1.5% of Quebec residents claim affiliation with the Anglican church (Statistics Canada, 1993). Anglicanism is far from being alone in its decline and, indeed, its rate of descent is now significantly less than that of other major Protestant denominations. Nonetheless, such ceaseless and seemingly inexorable attrition is undoubtedly of concern, especially when it is observed that as few as 14% of those claiming affiliation may be regarded as active regular participants in church activities (Bibby, 1993: 172). The Anglican church faces a situation in which at least half, and possibly the vast majority of its declared adherents manifest mere cultural allegiance. Though resembling Quebec Catholicism (on a reduced scale) in this regard, it is far more restricted in its capacity to bring formal educational institutions to its rescue.

In seeking to avert a future fate as a purely ethnic body rooted in ancestry rather than activity, Anglicanism aspires to a more multicultural character through contact with immigrant communities at the same time as it defines the major emphasis of its ministry in terms of social concern. Tolerant, democratic and open to compromise, as it demonstrated in recent decisions involving Prayer Book reform, the Anglican community accommodates within its ranks a range of theological opinion from Anglo-Catholicism to evangelicalism. Its prevailing ideology, however, is a somewhat indistinct fusion of liberal theology and progressive politics which recalls an earlier Social Gospel and links it theoretically and practically with dominant trends in both the Roman Catholic and United churches. Charting a characteristically cautious via media in the realm of Christian social action, Anglicans increasingly identify themselves publicly with those inhabiting the margins of society and view the corridors of power from the remote vantage-point of an ecumenical congeries of religious pressure-groups.

Despite a certain aura of prestige which still surrounds Anglicanism, the leading Protestant denomination in a national context is undoubtedly the United Church of Canada whose more than three million members comprise 11.5% of the total Canadian population and 15% of those living outside the province of Quebec (Statistics Canada, 1993). More strongly represented than Anglicanism in all English-speaking provinces but Newfoundland, this church symbolizes both the Canadian art of compromise and the dilemma of denominationalism. Founded in 1925 as a result of a merger among Methodists, Congregationalists and a majority of Presbyterians, the United Church has, from its very beginning, faced the difficult task of forging a common religious identity from somewhat diverse theological, organizational and social traditions. With roots, like Anglicanism, among the pioneering elements of British settlement, it represents, in part, a product of denominational achievement in the socio-economic as well as pastoral aspects of two centuries of English-Canadian life. In recent decades, however, its efforts to cope with the damage inflicted by an increasingly secular environment have brought it close to the point of internal crisis.

Apart from a brief upsurge in the immediate post-war period, allegiance to the United Church has fallen steadily over the last half-century as a proportion of the Canadian population. In a pattern which resembles the Anglican experience, those professing affiliation with the United Church have declined from a figure of approximately 20% to a current standing in excess of 11%, the steepest fall in their representation having occurred in the most recent decade (Statistics Canada, 1993). Moreover, as in other denominations, affiliation by no means implies involvement. More than half of those claiming affiliation with the United Church may be classified as inactive while only 16% can be regarded as regular, active participants in its devotional life (Bibby, 1993: 172). Of those reasonably active within its ranks, roughly two-thirds might be considered theological and political moderates while the remaining third are almost equally divided between conservatives and radicals. Overall, the United Church exhibits a moderate progressivism appropriate to its energetic role in ecumenical co-operation. In this context, it is typically positioned to the left of the Anglicans with a reputation for setting the agenda in matters of social justice. The broad consensus achieved by the United Church represents a triumph of practical Christianity. Originally envisioned in the era of the Social Gospel, its unity rests more on pastoral than doctrinal foundations, a circumstance which prompts frequent repetition of the sobriquet "the New Democratic party at prayer".

Suffering significant decline in numbers and commitment while struggling against the apparently inexorable advance of secularization, the United Church appears impaled on the horns of a classic denominational dilemma. Firstly, a fight to retain relevance in the modern world may entail adoption of an increasingly secular outlook which eventually spells its own redundancy. Secondly, an attempt to stand defiantly apart from the world on grounds of Christian principle may simply result in sectarian self-exile and irrelevance. In the United Church, a moderate majority stands between two minorities which battle for its soul. On the one hand, conservative fundamentalists preoccupied with matters of doctrine and sexual morality plead for a return to the beliefs and practices of the past as a necessary preparation for the world to come. On the other, radicals inspired by a prophetic vision of social justice, equity and inclusion demand a commitment to building the Kingdom of God through the transformation of the present world. Seven years ago, a bitter public debate on the propriety of ordaining professed homosexuals to the ministry became a symbolic focus for the clash between these two religious cultures and raised the possibility of defection and schism (O'Toole et al , 1991). Though a major crisis was averted by compromise and procedural ambiguity, a high degree of tension between increasingly marginalized conservatives and organizationally influential radicals remains a crucial fact of life in the United Church. Few radical proposals are likely (in the future as in the past) to be widely accepted without significant modification. Yet, so dominant are the issues of human rights and social justice in United Church discourse, it appears certain that radicals rather than conservatives will set the church's future agenda.

Like Anglicanism, the United Church of Canada has attempted to shed its old British ethnic image by vigorous activity among immigrant communities, refugees, visible minorities and native Canadians. Symbolized, in recent years, by the election of a Korean and an aboriginal to its highest office, its policy of multicultural outreach is the most visible contemporary manifestation of its characteristic and long-standing social passion. Bloody but unbowed, this organization (like other mainline denominations) appears convinced that it can only face the material and spiritual challenges of the future if it is prepared to discard significant aspects of its past.


Numbering nearly ten million, Protestants now constitute 36% of the Canadian population, a figure representing a decrease of 5% during the last decade (Statistics Canada, 1993). While much of this erosion has been experienced within the ranks of the Anglican and United Churches (together accounting for more than half of Canada's Protestants), it has not been restricted to them. The three next largest Protestant denominations, each more than 600,000 strong, have also suffered significant decline in membership. Inclusion of the nation's nearly two million Presbyterians, Lutherans and Baptists within the ranks of mainline religion would not, therefore, improve its beleaguered condition, especially when low Presbyterian and Lutheran activity rates (18% and 20% respectively) are taken into account (Statistics Canada, 1993; Nock, 1993: 48; Bibby, 1993: 172).

"One corollary to the popular notion of spectacular evangelical development at the expense of secularism and mainline religious insipidity is the suggestion that Canadian evangelical sects may assume a decisive role in national politics paralleling that of the U.S. "Moral Majority", "Christian Right" or "Christian Coalition".

Protestant prospects are not universally so gloomy, however. They appear brighter for the nearly two million Christians (7% of the Canadian population) who may be considered "conservatives" or "evangelicals" and whose churches are maintaining, or even increasing, their numerical strength (Statistics Canada, 1993). Evangelicals are, of course, by no means confined to membership in explicitly conservative organizations. As noted earlier, both the Anglican and United churches contain evangelical minorities while even Roman Catholicism incorporates traditionalist, charismatic and revivalist elements within its ranks. Associated primarily with sectarian forms of religiosity, Canadian evangelicalism is also identified with more familiar, larger organizations such as the Baptists and the Salvation Army. Immediately recognizable as major evangelical bodies are the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, the Christian Reformed Church and the Mennonites, together claiming a total of more than three-quarters of a million members. Other evangelical organizations (with memberships roughly in the 5,000 - 25,000 range) include the Brethren in Christ, the Churches of Christ-Disciples, the Church of the Nazarene, the Church of God, the Apostolic Christians, the Evangelical Free Church, the Free Methodists, the Worldwide Church of God, the Canadian Reformed Church, the new Apostolic Church, the Missionary Church and the Wesleyans (Statistics Canada, 1993).

Popular accounts of the Canadian religious scene, undoubtedly inspired by perceptions of a conservative religious revival in the United States, portray a stark contrast between mainline church decline and evangelical growth and vitality. While such assessments possesses considerable credibility, however, they also exhibit a tendency to caricature, especially in their sweeping depictions of evangelical success. The significant growth of many evangelical organizations is indisputable. Thus, between 1981 and 1991, the Pentecostal Assemblies acquired 100,000 additional members: a growth rate of 29%. During the same period, the much smaller Christian and Missionary Alliance sustained a 75% increase in its membership by welcoming 25,000 new adherents, while such groups as the Church of the Nazarene and the Churches of Christ-Disciples experienced modest but healthy growth of 12% and 14% respectively (Statistics Canada, 1993). The "old time" quality of the evangelical religious community undoubtedly exerts considerable appeal for certain sections of the Canadian population (either by virtue of their history or present circmstances) and its leaders have been astute and adept both in exploiting and, to some extent, creating this situation. Responding to a perceived demand for a religiosity which is authoritative, fundamentalist and emotionally expressive, evangelicals have creatively combined customary activities with modern communication techniques to transmit their message of rebirth and revival to a wide audience. While notable in itself, the growth of many evangelical churches is made more significant by their obvious success in securing and sustaining high rates of active participation (in the 43-57% range) and generous financial contributions within their congregations (Hexham, 1993: 292-294; Bibby, 1993: 108 and 172).

While acknowledging such achievements, some sociologists have indicated the need for careful and critical assessment of the nature of evangelical growth. It may be noted, for example, that not all organizations usually labelled evangelical have grown in the last decade. Thus, Baptists, by far the largest group, declined by 5% while the long established and widely recognized Salvation Army experienced a 12% decrease in membership (Statistics Canada, 1993). Provoking controversy, Reginald Bibby (1987: 27-31) has challenged the popular wisdom which regards evangelical growth as primarily fuelled by proselytization among, and defections from mainline churches. In his opinion, close statistical scrutiny reveals that such expansion is a more prosaic product of higher birth-rates and a circulation of members among the numerous organizations which espouse the evangelical cause. He suggests, accordingly, that as few as 10% of evangelicals are recruited from outside the broad evangelical community.

One corollary to the popular notion of spectacular evangelical development at the expense of secularism and mainline religious insipidity is the suggestion that Canadian evangelical sects may assume a decisive role in national politics paralleling that of the U.S. "Moral Majority", "Christian Right" or "Christian Coalition". As exciting as such a prospect might be to evangelicals, it can provoke only scepticism among sociologists familiar with the crucial differences between American and Canadian religion. As noted earlier, sectarian Christianity of the kind associated with evangelicalism is a decidedly minority variant of Canadian religiosity. Whether growing or not, evangelicals comprise only 7% of the Canadian population compared with U.S. estimates of approximately three times that figure (Bibby, 1987: 27; Nock, 1993: 54. Furthermore, even a much larger evangelical population would find it impossible to sustain a national "politics of morality" on the American model given the essentially dualistic and segmented character of Canadian society (Simpson, 1988: 355-356; Simpson and MacLeod, 1985). In this regard, the hopes of some that the new federal Reform Party might become the political vehicle for their moral crusade have been disappointed. Evangelicalism is not, apparently, to become the Reform Party at prayer. If the significance of Canadian evangelicalism is religious rather than political, its particular strength is surely a matter of commitment rather than numbers. In this respect, mainline churches will continue to face stiff competition, especially in their struggle for the souls of the uprooted, the marginal and the disinherited.

Persistence of a minority sectarian element in Canadian religious life has not precluded the emergence of more contemporary alternatives to mainline religion especially in the form of New Religious Movements (NRMs). The Canadian public has, accordingly, not been spared predictable mass-media sensationalism concerning "cults" in their midst. Intermittently re-charged by incidents such as the recent Quebec Solar Temple murders, popular discussion of NRMs proceeds along the familiar brainwashing-deprogramming axis with a prurient emphasis on the deviant, erotic and exotic. An appropriate foundation for more sober analysis of NRMs is provided by census documentation of membership in "para-religious groups". Incorporating such familiar NRM designations as Scientology, New Age, Paganism and even Satanism, this category is broad enough to include Theosophists, Rastafarians and practitioners of Native Indian and Inuit (Eskimo) religion. While their numbers have doubled in the last decade to a total of approximately 28,000 (0.1% of the Canadian population), para-religious adherents constitute a less than impressive presence in national religious life (Statistics Canada, 1993). Though Canada can boast some indigenous creations such as the Kabalarian and I AM organizations, most of its NRMs are branch-plants of well-known international bodies such as the Moonies, Scientologists, Hare Krishnas, Rajneeshis and Wiccans (Kent, 1993; Ralston, 1988). While Canadian recruits typically resemble their American or European counterparts and the attractions of NRM membership transcend national boundaries, a specifically Canadian variation on the familiar theme of NRM appeal to the marginal, confused and disoriented has been provided by Roland Chagnon (1985). Noting the erosion of Quebec Catholicism's moral authority and convinced that Quebec's Quiet Revolution has been succeeded by a mood of quiet disillusionment fuelled by political uncertainties, Chagnon suggests that Québécois, both individually and collectively, are in search of a satisfying and coherent identity. The appeal of NRMs, especially for the young, thus lies in their presumed ability to deliver what mainline clerics, politicians, cultural elites, economists, planners and constitutional lawyers have been unable to provide. Apparently inspired by similar assumptions on a national scale, the Transcendental Meditation movement launched its own "Natural Law Party" to contest the 1992 Federal election. Despite a climate of considerable uncertainty and disillusionment, however, its political message went unheeded.

The notion of NRMs filling the vacuum created by the disappearance of mainline churches has of course, intrigued many sociologists. Most notably, Stark and Bainbridge (1985: 471) have asserted that "cults abound where the churches are weak" and have ingeniously attempted to support this proposition with Canadian as well as American evidence, particularly from the west coast. There seems little doubt, however, that these authors misjudge the potential of NRMs as alternatives to mainline or conventional Canadian religiosity. By overlooking the significance of the structural differences between U.S. and Canadian religion, they underestimate the capacity of inclusive denominationalism to accommodate religious dissent and overestimate Canadians' propensity to engage in religious innovation (Bibby, 1987: 36-40). Since the 1970s, some sociologists have been prone to exaggerate the significance of NRMs, regarding them as harbingers of a new religious consciousness and a return of the sacred. This argument appears increasingly implausible in a Canadian context. Thus, while conventional religion is undoubtedly in decline, and may indeed be in crisis, there is no evidence to suggest that NRMs exert any notable attraction for its disillusioned adherents. Given that the number of Canadians professing no religious affiliation now exceeds three million (12.5% of the population), having nearly doubled in 1981-1991 as well as during the previous decade (Statistics Canada, 1993; Brinkerhoff and Mackie, 1993), it seems far more likely that those who abandon mainline churches will avoid all formal religious attachment than that they will assume the demanding obligations of NRM membership.

"The contrast between U.S. and Canadian religious life is nowhere more apparent than in the realm of civil religion for Canada has been singularly unsuccessful in forging an emotionally-charged and binding national ideology."

The "new religions" which are of growing significance are those "Eastern non-Christian" faiths (mainly Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism) which have expanded greatly during the last two decades as a result of the growth in non-western immigration to Canada. Now totalling approximately three-quarters of a million, the members of these religious groups comprise somewhat less than 3% of the national population (Statistics Canada, 1993). Though still of decidedly minority status in statistical terms, their concentration in major cities has lately given Canadian urban religious life an increasingly pluralistic or multicultural character. In this regard, some basic statistics and comparisons supply abundant and eloquent evidence of an intriguing recent development on the Canadian religious scene. Thus, Eastern non-Christian religions increased their numbers overall by 144% in the decade 1981-91. More specifically, Islam grew by 158%, Hinduism by 126%, Sikhism by 118% and Buddhism by no less than 215%. A comparison with Judaism may put these figures in perspective for, in 1981, Jews and the adherents of Eastern non-Christian faiths both numbered approximately 300,000. Though by 1991 the number of Jews had grown by 7% they were now less than half as numerous as Eastern non-Christian devotees. Similarly, though in 1981 Jews outnumbered Muslims by a ratio of three to one, in 1991 the Islamic population had reached 80% of the Jewish population and may be expected to achieve numerical parity within a few years. A final comparison is worthy of note: Eastern non-Christian religions in combination now outnumber each of the largest Christian churches outside the ecclesiastical triumvirate comprising Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism and the United Church. On average, Baptists, Presbyterians and Lutherans each fall short by approximately 100,000 members while Pentecostals (themselves experiencing notable growth) are exceeded by a figure in excess of 300,000 (Statistics Canada, 1993). The fact that the rapid growth of Eastern non-Christian religion has been generated by recent waves of immigration suggests, of course, that such affiliation may, in many cases, be of a purely formal or cultural character. Careful investigation of belief patterns, participation rates and varieties of commitment within Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh and other communities is thus an essential enterprise for sociological research.

The contrast between U.S. and Canadian religious life is nowhere more apparent than in the realm of civil religion for Canada has been singularly unsuccessful in forging an emotionally-charged and binding national ideology (Lipset, 1990: 1-2). Though the fathers of Canadian confederation supplied a scriptural charter for their new dominion (Psalms 72:8), the central precepts of their new political nationality were devotion to the Crown and respect for the British parliamentary tradition. Crown and Empire, however, were to prove inadequate foundations for an embryonic civil religion required to win the hearts, not merely of those of British origin, but of a large Francophone population and a growing immigrant minority utterly alien to British culture and institutions (Stahl, 1981). Not surprisingly, subsequent more tentative attempts to foster beliefs, rites and symbols as potential components of a post-colonial civil religion have proven equally abortive; inhibited mainly by bilingualism, biculturalism, regionalism and pervasive American cultural influence (Kim, 1993). Nonetheless, the quest for a viable pan-Canadian civil religion has not been abandoned entirely; it survives amidst the nostalgia and utopianism of the perennial search for an elusive national identity (Blumstock, 1993).


What is the contemporary situation of Canadian religion? On the surface, it is much as it has been for the last century. Although growing numbers disclaim religious affiliation, Christianity still claims the allegiance of the overwhelming majority of Canadians and the major Christian churches still dominate the religious scene. Christian sectarianism also thrives though it has been supplemented recently by more exotic minority faiths. At a deeper level, however, Canadian religion is dramatically different. Though secularization has not entailed its destruction or abandonment, it has "come adrift from its former points of anchorage" and has been transformed from a social institution into a cultural resource in a manner typical of advanced industrial societies (Beckford, 1992: 170-171). In Canada as elsewhere, increasing autonomization of the individual has led to the radical disjunction of the customary link between believing and belonging (Luckmann, 1967; Davie, 1994). Canadians now choose to define the nature and content of their religiosity by drawing from that "reservoir of rites, practices and beliefs" with which they are most familiar "without responding to any institutional prerequisites or their consequences" (Voyé and Dobbelaere, 1993: 95-96). In these circumstances, their religion has generally acquired the fragmentary, syncretic, consumerist character associated with the term "bricolage" (Bibby, 1987; Voyé and Dobbelaere, 1993: 95-97). Widely disregarded as a source of authoritative meaning systems and an arena of total commitment, Canadian religion must now cater increasingly to the specific and highly selective needs of a capricious citizenry. Thus, on the eve of a new millennium, its condition may best be characterized as problematic, precarious and unpredictable.


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Roger O'TOOLE is Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto and cross-appointed to the Centre for the Study of Religion. His publications include The Precipitous Path: Studies in Political Sects and Religion: Classic Sociological Approaches. ADDRESS: Division of Social Sciences, University of Toronto, Scarborough Campus, Scarborough, Ontario, Canada, M1C 1A4.

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