Religion in Canada

Gideon Bible

Canadian hotel rooms will often have bibles in the nightstand drawer, a tribute to the work of the evangelical Gideon Society. Until recently, it was common to receive a Gideon bible upon becoming a new citizen, too.

Religion can be a sensitive topic in Canada. As we discuss in the etiquette chapter, many even consider it to be one of the “big three” taboos of modern Canadian life. Part of this is doubtlessly due to the fact that Canada is home to so many different (and often conflicting or hostile) religious faiths and traditions; unlike folks in many parts of the world, Canadians can never take it for granted that their friends and neighbours will be members of the same faith as themselves — or even members of any faith at all.

Nevertheless, Canadians are a measurably religious people just the same, with upwards of 70 per cent of the population claiming to believe in God and almost equally as many holding membership in some sort of organized church. As is the case with most western nations, however, Canada is undeniably an increasingly secular country as well, and the degree to which Canadians have been able to retain their loyalty to God while also living modern, progressive, independent lives is a source of ever-changing attitudes and ongoing debate.

Just as a prelude to some of the numbers to follow, it should be noted that definitive religious statistics in Canada can be difficult to obtain, particularly since the government of Canada ceased asking Canadians about their religious beliefs following the 2001 census. I will also note that quickly condensing the complicated beliefs of other faiths is never easy, and the following summaries are simply intended to be simplistic overviews, not a theologically definitive analysis.

Christianity

Cartier's cross

When French explorer Jacques Cartier (1491-1557) first landed in Canada in 1534, he erected a massive cross to show that he was claiming the land not just for France, but for Christianity, too.

Since the vast majority of settlers and immigrants who colonized Canada originally came from Europe, Christianity has long been Canada’s dominant faith, and even now the country retains an identifiable Christian character present in everything from national holidays to family structure to the criminal code.

Christianity is of course based on the teachings of Jesus Christ (c.6 BC – c.30 AD), who Christians believe lived as the divine son of God during his life, and forms one-third of God’s holy trinity that must be worshiped to achieve salvation. The Christian Bible consists of two distinct volumes, the Old and New Testaments, the latter of which lays out many of Christ’s rules for righteous living.

Despite their shared love of Jesus, Canadian Christians have always been significantly divided about how to practise their faith, meaning that three self-proclaimed Canadian “Christians” may actually attend three different churches and believe three rather distinct and conflicting interpretations of the Bible and Christ’s instructions.

What follows is a brief overview of some of the major branches of Christianity present in Canada.

Catholicism

Roman Catholicism was the earliest faith of Canada’s European settlers, and to this day remains the largest single denomination of self-identified Canadian Christians. Originally brought to the eastern coast of North America by French colonists in the 16th century, the religion would proceed to spread all across Canada, thanks to the efforts of French missionaries, particularly members of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), whose journeys across the harsh terrain of the vast Canadian landscape have long been the subject of religious and secular legend alike. Numbering around 14 million people, today Catholics comprise about 40 per cent of the Canadian population.

Pope John Paul II

An ailing Pope John Paul II (1920-2005) waves to supporters at Toronto's World Youth Day in 2002, which saw the enthusiastic turnout of thousands of young Canadian Catholics.

Headquartered in Rome, the Roman Catholic Church believes its legitimacy as the one true Christian church flows from its leader, Pope Francis (b. 1936), who is said to be the modern-day successor of the many successors of St. Peter (c. 1st Century, AD), who was in turn the handpicked successor of Jesus himself. Catholicism remains the most rigidly hierarchical form of Christianity, with the objectively “correct” interpretations of biblical teachings flowing to parishioners downward, through the Pope, his cardinals, bishops and priests. In modern times, the church is particularly known for its strongly conservative views on sexual and reproductive issues, including birth control and abortion.

For centuries, Canadian Catholicism was particularly associated with French-Canadians and the province of Quebec, whose clergy were strong proponents of the most hardline, or ultramontane faction of the church well into the 20th century. Fear and suspicion about this fundamentalism led to a lot anti-Catholic bigotry among non-believers for most of Canadian history, and until quite recently it was very unusual for Canadian Catholics to marry non-Catholics or for Catholic children to attend non-Catholic schools.

Today, Catholicism has declined remarkably among Quebecers, but remains strong among other communities in Canada who trace their roots to traditionally Catholic nations such as Italy, Ireland, Portugal, Poland, Latin America and the Philippines.

Protestantism

Protestantism is simply a catch-all name for any faction of Christianity that is non-Catholic in belief and organization. Though about 30 per cent of Canadians consider themselves Protestants, the sheer number of Protestant churches in the country makes it a very hard identity to generalize in any useful way. Its major branches are:

Anglicanism

Orange Order

During the 19th century, conservative Anglicans were known for their militancy, and often organized in groups such as the Orange Order, seen here, in order to counter (what they saw) as the rising power of Catholics in Canadian society.

Historically, the Anglican Church was Canada’s main Christian alternative to Catholicism, and was the preferred church of the country’s early British colonists and missionaries in the same way the Catholic Church was favoured by the French. In the 18th and 19th centuries especially, Anglicanism was very much the church of Canada’s powerful Anglo establishment, and closely associated with conservative-minded men who dominated the country’s politics and commerce. Today, however, it has declined to third-place status in the faith rankings, with about two million followers (or around six per cent of the population).

Formally, the Anglican Church of Canada is a descendant of the British Church of England, which was established in the 16th century as a breakaway faction of the Roman Catholic Church. Once the official state religion of the British Empire, Anglicanism now exists as a fully independent church in dozens of sovereign nations. Structurally, it sits somewhere between the Catholic Church and some of the smaller Protestant churches, with a council of bishops holding final say over large theological matters, but considerable self-governing powers given to individual church congregations.

In recent years, the Canadian Anglican church has become particularly well-known for its controversially liberal positions on certain matters of Christian dogma, including the ordination of female priests and bishops (approved in 1975 and 1986, respectively) and an increasingly tolerant attitude towards homosexuality and same-sex marriage — the latter of which has proven to be a dramatic source of division among the church’s various parishes.

The United Church of Canada

During the 17th and 18th centuries, the British Isles went through a phase of so-called “evangelical Protestantism” that saw many new, democratic-populist churches arise in opposition to the then-authoritarian dominance of the Church of England. All would eventually find their way to North America.

Methodist Church

The imposing presence of the Metropolitan Methodist (now United) Church in Toronto, one of the largest churches in the country. At one time, Toronto was known as the "Methodist Rome" thanks to the city's high number of followers.

Presbyterianism was a largely Scottish tradition that eschewed a national hierarchy of bishops in favour of a network of independently-run churches with priests chosen by a local council of elders, or presbyteries. Congregationalists went even further, and argued only the church congregation as a collective could appoint priests. Then there were the Methodists who eschewed priests altogether and aggressively promoted the idea that each individual Christian held an obligation to preach and promote his faith, particularly to the poor and downtrodden.

These three traditions earned a share of followers in Canada, and during the 19th and 20th centuries enjoyed growing support among middle class Canadians outside the French-English duality, particularly Scots, Germans, Russians and Scandinavians. Sensing more similarities than differences, the leading representatives of the three voted in 1925 to formally merge into one United Church, which now sits as the country’s single largest Protestant denomination, with over 2.5 million followers.

Reflecting their founding desire for unity rather than schism, the modern United Church of Canada remains a loose network of independently-governed churches, each of which promotes a highly individualistic interpretation of scripture and a personal relationship with God at the expense of a clear and rigid code of morality decreed from the top down. In practice, Canada’s United Churches are usually considered to be the most theologically liberal and permissive of any major Protestant denomination, and its leaders are well-known for their activism in pushing controversially left-wing political and social causes.

Other Protestant sects

There are said to be half a million Baptists in Canada, members of another loosely organized, non-hierarchical Protestant denomination best known for its adult baptisms and fiery, conservative sermons. Canadian Lutherans are almost as numerous, and participate in a fairly conservative and traditional Protestant church known more for its ethnic makeup (primarily recent German and Scandinavian immigrants) than any particularly distinctive modern traditions.

Starfield

Eager to distance themselves from the "stuffy" reputation of other Christian churches, Evangelical churches often embrace all sorts of modern ways to deliver their message, including rock concerts by Christian groups like Winnipeg's Starfield, seen here.

The dozens of other small Protestant sects whose followers have left some cultural impact on Canada include the charity-focused Salvation Army, the strict and puritanical Jehovah’s Witnesses, and two prophet-based churches, the Seventh-Day Adventists who follow the teachings of Ellen White (1827-1915) and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the “Mormon” church), whose faith is built around the revelations of Joseph Smith (1805-1844) and his successors. The Canadian prairies are home to a significant population of followers of various rural, isolationist Christian sects from 17th century eastern Europe as well, including Mennonites and Hutterites, who emphasize a commitment to self-sufficiency and simple living.

More and more Canadian Christians are increasingly opting out of denominational Protestantism altogether, however, in favour of simpler, non-sectarian evangelical churches that preach a mostly literal interpretation of the Bible and promote a highly personal relationship with God. The term “evangelical” itself refers to the practice of aggressively seeking to spread awareness of the faith to non-believers, partially via so-called “born-again” adult conversions. Modern, image-conscious and known for its large, inclusive “mega-churches,” evangelical Christianity is Canada’s fastest-growing form of Protestantism and has made considerable inroads among youth, immigrants and suburbanites. At the same time, it’s also earned a great deal of controversy due to its active support for conservative political causes, particularly opposition to homosexuality and abortion.

Judaism

Numbering less than half a million, Canada’s Jewish population may seem small, but is actually the fourth largest Jewish community in the world, eclipsed only by Israel, France and the United States.

Harper menorah

Prime Minister Stephen Harper (b. 1959) watches a menorah-lighting ceremony organized by local Canadian Jews in Calgary.

Judaism proper is an incredibly ancient religion founded some three thousand years before Christ and based around the lessons contained within the biblical Old Testament, as well as a vast volume of commentary by centuries of Jewish thinkers known as the Talmud. Compared to other faiths, however, many Jews may view their religion as much a cultural identity as a spiritual one, with great emphasis placed on maintaining proper reverence for various age-old Jewish traditions, customs and holidays that help maintain a sense of permanent community and identity.

Most Canadian Jews are descended from Eastern European immigrants who came to Canada after World War II (1939-1945); prior to that, Canada maintained an infamously anti-Semitic immigration policy, prompting most North American Jewish refugees to settle in the United States instead. Today, Canada’s largest Jewish communities are located in the urban centres of Toronto and Montreal, where their small presence has nevertheless made a significant influence on local art, politics, commerce and cuisine.

Islam

Islam is considered to be the world’s third major monotheistic (single-god) faith, and like Judaism and Christianity, it traces its origins to the ancient Middle East. Its key tenets entail reverence for Mohammad (c. 570 – c. 632), a man believed to be God’s final prophet on earth, and the Koran, a holy book transcribed by the prophet to document God’s instructions to the faithful.

The Trouble With Islam

Irshad Manji (b. 1968) is a Muslim-Canadian writer who has emerged as one of the world's leading critics of her faith. An openly gay, westernized intellectual, in books like "The Trouble With Islam" (2005), she argues Islam can be compatible with liberal democracy, but only after significant reform.

With over half a million followers, Islam is said to be the fastest-growing religion in modern Canada, a fact which is entirely due to a recent influx of Muslim immigrants from Islamic nations. Of these, most hail from a small group of countries in south Asia and the Middle East, namely Iran, Pakistan, India, Egypt and Lebanon, and the practice of the faith in Canada remains heavily tied to the cultures of these communities as a result.

Of all of Canada’s major faith groups, Muslims easily remain the most controversial, with polls routinely showing them to be amongst the least trusted segments of the population. This is partially due to the aftermath of the extremist Islamist terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which helped taint the faith with negative associations of violence and fundamentalism, and partially because of a broader secular anxiety regarding the religion’s traditionally conservative views on women’s rights and free speech. As the country’s Islamic population continues to rise, such tensions seem likely to continue, but so too are more aggressive attempts to promote interfaith understanding.

Other Faiths

Vaisakhi parade

Local Sikhs march in their annual Vaisakhi parade in Surrey, British Columbia. The biggest event of the Sikh year, Surrey's celebration is the second-largest in the world, due to its high population of Indian immigrants. Photo: Nick Procaylo

There are about 300,000 Hindus in Canada, mostly Indian immigrants, who practice a largely unorganized but incredibly complicated, millennia-old religion based around the veneration of many different gods and ancient stories of morality and virtue. Canada’s similarly-sized Sikh population is also dominated by Indian immigrants, but its followers obey the teachings of the Guru Nanak (1469-1539) and his nine successors, who preached a message of veneration of a single god and a strict lifestyle of modest, moral living. Like Islam, both faiths are heavily tied to the cultural identities of the immigrant communities they dominate.

Canada’s Buddhists are also an immigrant-heavy group; in this case, mostly emigres from China and Japan. It’s sometimes debated whether or not Buddhism is actually a religion at all, since it does not actually engage with larger questions of god or salvation, but rather provides philosophical guidelines for ethical, happy living, particularly meditation and material sacrifice.

Though the majority were successfully converted to Christianity during the colonial era, many aboriginal Canadians continue to hold certain traditional spiritual beliefs that predate European contact. Broadly based around a veneration for nature and animals, morality parables and natural sacraments, aboriginal spirituality is often combined with Christianity to create a distinctive hybrid faith.

Lastly, Canada is also home to a not-insignificant number of Pagans, Wiccans, Scientologists, Hare Krishnas, and Swedenborgian or “New Age” spiritualists, though with such  comparatively small groups of followers, all have struggled mightily to gain mainstream acceptance.

The Irreligious

Along with Muslims and Evangelical Christians, the fastest-growing segment of Canada’s religious population consists of those who are not religious at all. Over four million Canadians claimed to have “no religion” on the 2001 census, and a 2012 survey found a record high of nine per cent who claimed to be outright atheists.

National Assembly Crucifix

A large Catholic crucifix hangs over the chair of the speaker in the Quebec parliament. Originally intended to be a symbol of provincial unity, in recent years it's become more and more controversial as more and more Quebecers identify with non-Catholic (or non-Christian) religions.

It can be difficult to measure the exact degree of faithlessness in Canada, however. Many of those who consider themselves “not religious” may still believe in God, but simply never attend an organized church. Likewise, many Canadians who do consider themselves religious may do so primarily for cultural reasons, and not actually to respect or follow any the rules of their supposed faith in their day-to-day lives. Then there are those who claim the label of “agnostic” — folks who simply haven’t reached a conclusion on God or religion one way or another.

Though the avowedly irreligious may be a minority, Canada remains a nation with a strongly secular culture just the same. Most Canadians now take for granted the idea that religion is a mostly private matter, with discussions of God and spirituality reserved mainly for church, family or other members of the faith, but rarely strangers or non-believers. Politically, there’s also a strong belief in the so-called separation of church and state, meaning that politicians should not use their powers to promote the values of one specific religion while in office, nor should religious leaders use their powers to affect the political process. Of course, in practice, not everyone obeys these rules, but they nevertheless represent a certain idealized standard of conduct for a religious people in an inclusive age.

Links About Religion in Canada:

Quick Facts:

  • The vast majority of Canadians believe in God and consider themselves members of an organized religion.
  • The most popular religion in Canada is Christianity, and most Canadian Christians are Catholics.
  • Virtually every major world faith or denomination has a significant number of members in Canada, including Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sikhism.
  • Despite the presence of religion, Canada is a strongly secular society that emphasizes attitudes of privacy and tolerance towards faith.