What Canadians really believe: A surprising poll

Religion in Canada isn’t declining nearly as fast as we think. A remarkable new survey finds out what Canadians really believe
(Photograph by Derek Mortensen)
(Photograph by Derek Mortensen)

When his book Unknown Gods was published 22 years ago, University of Lethbridge sociologist and pollster Reginald Bibby painted a rather dreary picture of where Canada’s churches would be by about 2015. Congregations would be older, birth rates wouldn’t keep up with the number of folks who were dying off, and all the while many children weren’t being socialized into a faith. It was a linear decline, plain and simple. The writing was on the wall. “Even with the Toronto Maple Leafs, there is hope for a better next year,” he says in an interview. “Whereas with religion, it looked pretty much over.”

When 2015 finally came around, Bibby decided to revisit his book and check on his predictions. He discovered that for many religious groups, he was quite off-target. Catholics, for example, are building new churches in some parts of the country. Evangelicals increased their total numbers as Canada’s population grew. The same goes for Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs. He had accurately forecasted a long, drawn-out decline for the United Church of Canada and the Anglican Church. But some religions were getting an infusion of new blood.

“What I screwed up on—it sounds so naive looking back—[is] I didn’t allow for the immigration variable,” Bibby says. “The thing that pumps new life into religion in Canada has been this mammoth entrance not only of Muslims, but also Catholics.” Not to mention the Protestants, Sikhs and Hindus.

Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 6.05.37 PMTurns out the decline of religion is not nearly as steep as we might believe. An ambitious new national faith survey of more than 3,000 Canadians from the Angus Reid Institute, a not-for-profit polling organization—in partnership with Bibby—emphasizes that the old refrain of a relentless secularization of Canada may have a new verse. While it’s true that ever more people (now 26 per cent of the population) are inclined to reject religion, a solid segment—30 per cent of Canadians—embraces religion. (Forty-four per cent of Canadians said they were “somewhere in between.”) And of the religiously inclined, more than half attend a service at least once a month, while almost nine of 10 pray privately on a regular basis.

The big boost in numbers comes from abroad. Among those born outside Canada, almost 40 per cent are inclined to embrace religion while less a quarter reject it. Compare that to the Canadian-born, where the figures are levelling out: 29 per cent embrace religion, while 27 per cent reject it.

In effect, organized religion in Canada has found its saviours: immigrants.

Growing up in Regina about 60 years ago, says Father Lorne Crozon, rector at Holy Rosary Cathedral, “if you saw a black person on the street, he was either a new doctor in town or he was playing for the [Saskatchewan] Roughriders.” When Crozon became a priest in the city about 30 years ago, his church was also pretty homogeneously white. But now when he looks out at the parish, his 11 a.m. mass is about one-third immigrants; the evening mass will be about two-thirds. There are a huge number of Filipinos, but there is also an influx from Nigeria, Eritrea and India. “One of the things that the immigrant community does is it goes to church,” Crozon says. “We’re growing.”

They’re growing in bunches. With families from a Western culture who do attend church, parents sometimes go while the kids stay at home. Not so with the immigrant communities, says Crozon. “The Filipinos and Nigerians in particular, when Mom and Dad come to church, the kids come to church,” he says. “The immigrant community gives us some hope that there’s a future.”

In fact, there’s an interesting split when it comes to youth and religion. As one might expect, among the Canadian-born, those older than 55 are more likely to embrace religion than younger generations. The exact opposite is the case for those born outside Canada: almost half of those aged 18 to 34 said they attend a religious service at least once a month. A smaller number, 27 per cent of the foreign-born older than 55, make the same claim.

Christianity has certainly benefited from the arrival of newcomers. Bibby’s prior research, which looked at 2011 Statistics Canada and National Household Survey data, found that about one in every two immigrants to Canada between 2001 and 2011 was either a Catholic or a Protestant. Nearly 500,000 immigrants who arrived in Canada during that span identified as Roman Catholic.

Evangelicals are holding their own by consistently hovering around a 10 per cent share of the country’s population. About 24 per cent of those evangelical affiliates are immigrants, according to Rick Hiemstra, director of research at the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. “We have a lot of immigrants [in the fellowship] because a lot of the churches are founded by different waves of immigrants,” he says. “I’ve got a list in front of me of over 200 denominations in Canada.”

Hiemstra explains that it was Dutch immigrants after the Second World War who founded the Christian Reform Church. “Nowadays,” he says, “you’re getting denominations that tend to be smaller but very fast growing. They’re Chinese or African in origin—or South American or Korean or Filipino or Vietnamese.” Immigrants aren’t just joining churches; in some cases, they’re starting them. “It’s difficult even for a researcher like me to find and track them,” adds Hiemstra. “In many cases they won’t even show up as registered charities because they’re too new to have gotten around to applying.”

With Christianity on a global rise—as one example, there could be 220 million Christians in China by 2050, according to Bibby—one can extrapolate how more immigration to Canada means more potential believers.

Islam, too, is growing thanks to newcomers. Muslims added almost 400,000 through immigration during the same span and they are a long way from living in a retirement home; as of 2011, the median age of Muslim immigrants was 29.

A man looks out before prayer at the Muslim Association of Canada's Eid celebration that marks the end of the holiday of Ramadan at the Metro Convention Centre in Toronto in 2011. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/CP)
A man looks out before prayer at the Muslim Association of Canada’s Eid celebration that marks the end of the holiday of Ramadan at the Metro Convention Centre in Toronto in 2011. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/CP)

Not all religious leaders across the spectrum will see their place of worship stay afloat. Immigration doesn’t treat all religious affiliations equally. “The Catholics are laughing because they got all these people coming in every year,” Bibby says. “Heaven help the poor Presbyterians, who used to rely on people coming in from Scotland. They just don’t have those pipelines anymore.”

Prior to 1981, the top four countries sending immigrants to Canada were the U.K., Italy, the U.S. and Germany, according to Statistics Canada census data. From 1981 to 2006, the top countries of origin were China, India, the Philippines and Pakistan.

Of course, not all immigrants are religious. More than 440,000 who came to Canada between 2001 and 2011 identified as having no religion. But compare that to the nearly 1.6 million who arrived to Canada during that decade identifying with any religion. Hindus added more than 150,000 through immigration, while the Christian Orthodox and Sikh populations each added more than 100,000. This shift in demographics has begun to change the face of religion in Canada.

Moving forward, whichever countries become the primary source for immigration will have a major effect on that picture. About 67 per cent of Canada’s population growth now comes from migratory increase, a number that is projected to reach 80 per cent starting in 2031. People just aren’t having babies the way they were in the 20th century.

But that’s only partly true. Immigrants have more children compared to their Canadian-born counterparts, according to a 2013 study. “By the time [immigrants] have spent five years in Canada they have almost twice as many children of preschool age than the average Canadian-born woman,” according to the study, co-written by University of Waterloo professor Ana Ferrer. If new Canadians are having more kids than those born in Canada, and a greater percentage of immigrants are religious, there could continue to be hope for religion yet—or some religions.

“The reality is that groups depending on natural increase are dead in the water. There’s just not enough people being born to offset the number who are dying,” Bibby says. “If you have stock in the United Church or the Anglican Church, Presbyterians or Lutherans, you’re going to lose a lot of money.”


Despite the good news that immigration offers, religion isn’t in the midst of a Hollywood comeback story. “There aren’t enough immigrant Christians to make up for the vast majority of Canadians who have become less enthusiastic, indifferent, or even hostile to Christianity,” says John G. Stackhouse, a professor of theology and culture at Regent College.

On the one hand, 73 per cent believing in a God or higher power sounds pretty high. On the other, it was 81 per cent only 15 years ago. If you look at the percentage of people who attend religious services even monthly, that’s at only 23 per cent today, compared with 30 per cent in 2000, according to the Angus Reid Institute survey. (The number of Canadians who attend a religious service weekly sank to 15 per cent.) Credit Richard Dawkins or the late Christopher Hitchens, but when asked if they believe that God or a higher power exist, those who said “no” more confidently saw a surge in their ranks. In 2005, seven per cent answered: “No, [I] definitely do not.” Ten years later, that percentage almost doubled, to 13 per cent.

“If you go back to the ’70s and ’80s, there’s no question that organized religion has been on the decline—particularly as it’s been measured in church attendance,” says Angus Reid, chairman of the Angus Reid Institute, “but people who are not religious—atheists or non-believers—were more sidelined. They were a silent minority.”

That’s not the case anymore, he adds, stressing that the narrative is no longer the decline in religion. Instead, it is the polarization between those who believe and this more assertive non-religious contingent. “This is no longer just an advertisement on a bus saying: ‘There is no God. Don’t worry,’ and more into active policy issues and discussions,” Reid says. Sex education? Designer babies? Abortion? Religious groups have always mobilized well to make their point heard on such issues, but what happens when an equally large and outspoken non-religious voice stands against them? More than 90 per cent of those who reject religion agreed that there are circumstances when a doctor would be justified in ending a patient’s life. But for those who embrace religion, only 60 per cent share that viewpoint.

That growing gap is reflected in other ways. According to the Angus Reid Institute survey, 63 per cent of those who reject religion said they feel, “generally speaking, uncomfortable around people who are religiously devout.” Conversely, more than two in five people who embraced religion admitted to feeling uncomfortable around people who have no use for it.

The largest group of Canadians, nearly half of us, categorize themselves ambivalently between embracing and rejecting faith. Most have moved out of the religious ranks, Bibby says. “If anything, they still feel a lot of affinity for religious groups.” Still, that doesn’t mean they are knowledgeable about religion. Broadly speaking, religious literacy among Canadians has declined dramatically. Twenty years ago, about half the Canadian population could name the apostle who denied Jesus three times, while almost 60 per cent could name the first book in the Old Testament. As of this year, those percentages have declined to 31 and 42, respectively. (Answers: Peter and Genesis.) On the plus side, the percentage of people who can name the sacred book of Islam, meanwhile, has jumped from 44 per cent in 2000 to 58 per cent this year (A: Quran), although this could be knowledge gleaned as much from the news as from any genuine religious engagement.

However polarized we may be on certain questions, there are some surprising beliefs shared by many Canadians. The percentage of people who believe it’s possible to communicate with the dead has doubled over the past three decades, up to 42 per cent. The share of people who believe that Jesus was the divine son of God has steadily gone down, but more people believe they will be reincarnated—up to one-third of Canadians. More than half of Canadians believe some people have psychic powers.

There has been one constant in this faith survey conducted over several decades: a belief in angels. The number of people who believe in angels hovers consistently around 62 per cent, though God and heaven may not be the entire reason for that. “I’m not convinced what we’re seeing there is a fervent religious belief in the existence of angels,” Reid says. “I don’t think it’s religiously rooted as much as it’s rooted in pop culture.”

METHODOLOGY: The survey was conducted online from March 4-11, 2015, among a national, randomized and representative sample of 3,041 Canadians who are members of the Angus Reid Forum. For comparison purposes, a probability sample of 3,000 would carry a margin of error of +/- 1.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. The full survey results are available on the Angus Reid Institute website, at