From The National Post
Organized religion on the decline? Growing number of Canadians ‘spiritual but not religious’
Kathryn Blaze Carlson | Dec 21, 2012 9:46 PM ET | Last Updated: Dec 21, 2012 9:58 PM ET
Rev. Juanita Austin realized her Salmon Arm, B.C., church’s advertising campaign resonated when a stranger at the grocery store interrupted her shopping and thanked the First United Church for putting out such a welcoming message. “Is there a church out there that gets being Spiritual but not Religious?” the ad asks. “Check us out.”
The ad does not disguise the church’s Christian affiliation — it bears a cross within a flame and the motto “a church with a difference.” But it also features a rainbow, the symbol of inclusivity made ubiquitous by the gay community, in the hopes of attracting reluctant believers into its dwindling fold.
The ad — produced with the help of a marketing consultant and released ahead of the Christmas season — was born out of the church sensing a shift it now knows to be a reality: More and more Canadians are turning away from organized religion, shunning dogma and church attendance for a vaguer notion of spirituality. They are spiritual, but not religious.
A new Forum Research poll, commissioned exclusively for the National Post, shows two-thirds of Canadians are spiritual while just half say they are religious. And a quarter of those who profess “no religion” still expressly believe in God. The poll comes at a time when church attendance rates are dipping, when most Canadians say they do not consider religion important and when claiming “no religion” is a more common answer than ever before — less than 1% of Canadians ticked off “no religion” four decades ago, but according to 2001 census data, the latest such data available, 16% marked that box.
“Organized religion is on the decline, but when we talk about spirituality, that’s a whole different ball game,” said Lorne Bozinoff, Forum’s president. “These people don’t believe in organized religions’ view of God. But there’s still a fear of death — big questions around things like that — and I think those kinds of things keep people spiritual, even though they might not be religious.”
A lack of historic data, or restrictions in accessing it, make it impossible to prove whether this shift is true worldwide, but the Pew Foundation this week released the next best thing — a far-reaching snapshot on religious adherence culled from 2,500 different data sources across 232 countries. And what it implicitly projects is this: Much of the western world is at the gates of a transformation, leaving behind religion in favour of more individualized spirituality.
Those who claimed no religious affiliation — “nones,” as the foundation playfully calls them — are the third-largest group worldwide, trailing only Christians and Muslims and rivaling Catholics in population. Strikingly, some 68% of “nones” in the U.S. believe in God or a higher power — this, in a year when America for the first time shed its status as a Protestant-majority nation.
“To my knowledge, [the Pew report] is the first scientific estimate of how big the global non-affiliated population is, ever,” said Conrad Hackett, a lead researcher on the study, who is now analyzing demographic data to scientifically project the future of religion worldwide. “It seems like in many European countries, in North America, and in Australia and New Zealand, unaffiliated numbers are on the rise … It’s an important and remarkable trend.”
It is important and remarkable because it raises key questions about what sparked this gradual shift and, significantly, what it means for the future of a race that has for centuries relied on religion as a guiding moral code and a physical place to connect. It sparks competing declarations that religion will become extinct in the not-so-distant future, or that religious institutions in free countries will be stronger for having shed the half-hearted, or that parts of the world will become more peaceful because religion will no longer divide us.
It spurs debate about whether churches will forever stick to their eternal values or adapt with public opinion on social issues such as gay marriage, abortion and birth control, and whether we are, as Southern Baptist leader Richard Land put it, on the path toward “maximum individualism” where we worship the Holy Trinity of I, Myself and Me and forgo religious traditions such as marriage altogether.
“It could spell a moral calamity for the country and the western world,” said Mr. Land, who hopes a future generation will stage a “resurgence of religious faith” in rebellion against what he views as an increasingly narcissistic, non-affiliated society. “We’re walking right into the propeller.”
Surely some religions and some parts of the world buck the “spiritual but not religious” trend — Judaism in Canada has remained steady for decades, and Islam is on the rise here and globally. But the rise of the “nones,” led by the youth who claim “no affiliation” in higher numbers than their parents, is an all but assured reality in the west.
Mr. Land remembers when Monica Lewinsky, who is Jewish, famously said in an interview she was more spiritual than religious — a “common response” among a generation that believes in the supernatural but increasingly shuns formal religious affiliation. Deepak Chopra has become a household name, yoga and meditation are mainstream, and there is even a dating website that now includes “spiritual but not religious” as an option in the religion category. This group even has its own increasingly used acronym, SBNR.
“There’s an ongoing interest in things that fall into the spiritual category — What’s the meaning of life? What happens if I die? How do I find happiness and inner peace?” said Michael Wilkinson, director of the Religion in Canada Institute at British Columbia’s Trinity Western University. “But people today don’t see institutionalized religion as having the ability to answer those big questions anymore … I really think we’re in a state of flux.”
All this has rankled some church leaders, such as Rev. Lillian Daniel, who is annoyed at the sort of people she describes as finding “God in the sunsets,” as if Christians or Jews or Muslims or Buddhists do not. Rev. Daniel, a senior minister at the First Congregational Church in Illinois, publicly blasted so-called SBNR people in a web post last year, telling them: “You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centred American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely interesting.” But in this cohort Elisabeth Cornwell sees potential. She is part of the atheist movement led by Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, who mounted highly public global efforts to combat religiosity.
Ms. Cornwell, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason, was the brains behind the foundation’s Out Campaign urging atheists to “come out,” “reach out,” “speak out,” “stand out,” and “keep out” of religious tents. The five-year-old campaign has been translated into 37 languages and has been picked up around the world, most recently by a group called the Afghan Atheists.
And the latest Pew study on global religions, she said, spells more “good news” for a group that deems itself “at the forefront of rational thinking and beacons of enlightenment.”
“Being non-affiliated means, ‘I’m not willing to follow a particular dogma,’ and that’s a good step in the right direction,” she said. “Once they’ve given up their attachment to religion, they might take another step toward really thinking about what it means that someone came out of nothing and did all these magical things.”
But Rev. Austin, the Salmon Arm minister, is hoping “spiritual but not religious” people will take a step toward a church like hers, and give religion a first or second chance. Her church’s future depends on it. At a United Church 25th anniversary event, former moderator Marion Best pointed out that membership in 1987 was counted at 864,000 and there were 30,000 adult and infant baptisms that year. Today, she said her church’s membership has been sliced in half, and baptisms are down a full 70%.
“I have a sense of calm in feeling that the divine — the spirit of God and the ministry of Jesus Christ — will continue,” she said. “But we have to find ways to reach out to the wider community, knowing there really is a spiritual hunger in the world.”