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Cardus Executive Vice-President Ray Pennings warned the annual Ideacity conference today that Canada risks abandoning its history of tolerance if current anti-religious attitudes grow to dominate our public life.
“I would suggest that we’re losing our history as we implement a closed secular framework, which is a very real problem on our way forward,” Pennings cautioned the Toronto gathering that bills itself as “Canada’s premier meeting of minds” each year.
His caution came in an address during the three-day conference’s God and Nature session. Pennings acknowledged religion in general has a “brand problem” among many Canadians. Many words associated with religious faith make a large percentage of the population uncomfortable, he admitted.
But polling that Cardus has done with the Angus Reid Institute demonstrates convincingly that the long-standing narrative of religion inexorably declining on the way to complete disappearance simply isn’t true, Pennings said.
“The bottom line is that the narrative of decline, that religion is going away, simply is not supported by the data.”
That doesn’t mean the nature and face of religious worship isn’t changing. We’re in the midst, he said, of an attitudinal shift that is flattening out the existing bell curve on which 20 per cent of Canadians are non-religious, 20 per cent are religiously committed, and 60 per cent engage in three or four markers of religious such as prayer or belief in God but do not identify with any specific religious group.
Canadians under 35 and new Canadians are tending to alter the curve by shrinking the 60 per cent middle, and adding to either end.
“They’re either embracing (religious practice) wholeheartedly or they’re rejecting it entirely,” Pennings said.
Cardus is currently digging deeper into that change by having Angus Reid poll new Canadians to understand how their religious attitudes compare to those who’ve been here for two or three generations, he said. The data will be published later this summer.
But Pennings identified two key outlooks of long-established Canadians that he contended do a disservice to the reality of religious life in the country, and imperil its foundation of tolerance.
The first is a lack of awareness, gusting to full blown amnesia, about the social contributions of religious faith. He cited statistics showing 83 per cent of people who identify as religiously committed are heavily involved in their communities, while only 50 per cent of those who identify as non-religious have an equivalent level of involvement.
Cardus’ Halo Project can even put a dollars and cents value on what religious faith gives to Canadians life. For example, it shows that the 800 religious institutions in Montreal save taxpayers $2 billion a year by providing services that would otherwise have to come out of public funds.
Most Canadians, however, have at best a sketchy knowledge of just how much such faith groups contribute, Pennings said.
That lack of awareness, he argued, has opened the ground for those hostile to faith to push the country toward what world-renowned Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has called “closed secularism” – i.e., the insistence that State neutrality requires forcing religious faith out of public life.
He cited as one example the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision last week in the Trinity Western University case. Former Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin acknowledged the decision represented a serious infringement of TWU’s religious freedoms but said it was justified by the higher value of equality rights.
“We are dealing with some major questions right now that are re-framing how we understand religion in public life,” Pennings said.
Those questions will not be properly re-framed if we forget Canada’s origins as an agreement between English Protestants and French Catholics to live tolerably together in religious freedom, he warned.
“They each believed the other was going to Hell, but decided to live together, support minority education for each other, and be a model of tolerance. We’re a country founded on principles that recognize the Supremacy of God and the rule of law in our Constitution. There’s a challenge for us to take that seriously to continue to make Canada glorious and free.”
Ideacity, now in its 19th year, is the brainchild of media mogul Moses Znaimer. Others appearing this year include widely-read National Post columnist Barbara Kay, leading business strategist Salim Ismail and Mason Dearman, a 13-year-old bagpiper and ukulele player from Nova Scotia.
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