The latest census is out and for one reason or another, one of the several numbers upon which media attention has been fixated are the religion figures. This sort of ties into my new series on science, evolution, and the future of humanity, but actually it’s a separate question which I probably would have written about anyways. So I hope you’ll forgive the digression.
Anyhow, the headline figure is that the number of Canadians who stated on the census that they were non-religious has increased from a small portion (16%) to a slightly less small portion (24%). What one is to make of this, it’s hard to say. The Globe & Mail has printed two articles on the subject, one titled “Canadians Losing Their Religion” and the other “Religion in Canada is Changing, But It’s Not Being Abandoned.” There’s also been the perennial gag about Jedi Knights, a subject which holds absolutely no interest to me except to say that it’s nice to see how many people approach the census with as much cavalier disdain as the Conservative government does.
But the thing that intrigues me about the religion figure isn’t that it’s shrunk. It’s that the figure is so high. About 75% of Canadians espoused a religion on the 2011 census. Almost all of them stated that they were Christian. It’s certainly true that those describing themselves as having “no religion” is increasing, but the vast majority of Canadians continue to say they are religious, Christian in point of fact. Next time you’re out in public (or at work), pick 13 people out of the crowd. Over the past 10 years, on average, 1 of those people abandoned their religion. All of this is simply to say that when the media prints statements like “we’re losing our religion,” they’re making statements that are really only valid for a very small minority of Canadians.
It does raise an obvious question, though: where exactly is all this religion?
Now, we know from the census that about 75% of Canadians say they are religious, and that about 67% say they are Christian. There’s no reason not to take Canadians at their word when they make these statements. I’m not accusing them of lying on the census.
We should, however, ask what it means when they say that they’re religious. On the ACS poll, only 67% of Canadians stated affirmatively that God exists. Note that this is less than — not a lot less than, but noticeably less than — the 75% of Canadians who say they are religious. About 10% of “religious” Canadians don’t actually believe in God.
That’s a minor quibble, though: the numbers drop off even more quickly from there. 58% of Canadians agree that “a higher power governs the world” — raising some obvious questions about an additional, substantial tranche of “religious” Canadians who think that God exists but does not intervene in any world affairs. (This is a feature of several religious traditions, but none of them have large followings in Canada.)
The next drop is even bigger: only 42% of Canadians say that religion is an important part of their life. This figure is particularly intriguing. It means that something like one-third of religious Canadians (say they) believe that God does exist and does govern the world, but still don’t think it’s important to figure out what He, She, or It wants from them, and to live their lives accordingly. I really don’t think I need to say anything more about the sheer vapidity of whatever “religion” is being espoused by such persons: they’ve already as much as said all that needs to be said.
It’s easier to explain why people say they’re religious but don’t really believe in God — mainly cultural inertia combined with a vague sense that church attendance and morality go hand in hand — than it is to explain why people say they believe in God but don’t think that this belief should play an important role in their lives. There’s simply no way to reconcile these statements in a way that makes any real sense whatsoever. The only real explanation that I can think of is that these people are simply bullshitting the pollster, and maybe themselves too.
And I have my doubts about the remaining 42%, too. It would be interesting to see the results, for instance, of a poll of all self-declared Christians which walked through the core elements of the Apostle’s Creed, which at least in theory is the bedrock statement of Christian orthodoxy defended by basically all denominations. How many Canadians, in other words, will state that they genuinely believe that God exists in three persons; that He impregnated a virgin in order to bring his “son” into the world; that this son was executed but raised from the dead and now “sits at the right hand” of God; and that this son will return to usher the faithful into the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting? How many Canadians could actually explain, in remotely coherent detail, the concept of the Trinity?
I hesitate to use American figures, for various reasons, but in this case it is useful to make a comparison, since we generally assume that Americans are more religious and conservative than Canadians are. In regular polling conducted by the Barna Group, fully 60% of Americans “said their faith had ‘greatly transformed’ their life” and only around 10% said their religion wasn’t important to them. But 40% denied that Jesus was sinless, and 60% claimed that the Holy Spirit was not a living force. 35% said they believe in Satan, but 76% said that religion was a choice between God and the devil. Only about half of those who said that the Bible was a sacred text owned to having read it outside of church in the past week.
All of which leads me to conclude that very few religious people take their religion very seriously, which is why I don’t take it particularly seriously, either. The evidence suggests that only a minority of religious Canadians consider their religion important enough to, for instance, come up with logically consistent answers to some fairly basic questions on the subject. The real question isn’t why the number of non-religious has grown from 16% to 24%, but why the number of people who say they’re religious remains so high when plainly, for many if not most of them, religion is not actually important to them at all.
All of this dovetails quite neatly with the leading theory at Sixth Estate, which is that people are ignorant and either unable or unwilling to think deeply. There are important reasons why this should be the case, most of them revolving around the fact that brains are expensive. Last year, I made much the same point about the pathetic state of Americans’ knowledge of the most basic facts in elementary science, a subject which most people also show no particular interest in taking seriously:
One thing we can say for certain is that a very large number of people are appallingly ignorant. As I suggested in my title, one-quarter of Americans still believe that the Sun goes around the Earth. One-half of Americans also think that the Earth goes around the Sun (or vice versa) in one day, rather than one year.
In addition, more than half of Americans think that antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria, and this number is actually climbing (up 7% over the last 5 years). Americans are also evenly split on the existence of the Y-chromosome, on whether electrons are smaller than atoms, and on whether there’s land at the North Pole or just ice…
At best, I think we can conclude that Americans are badly confused about basic scientific concepts. This probably won’t surprise many people, especially scientists or educators. It doesn’t terribly surprise me either, given that the British Columbian government recently engaged in weighty deliberations over whether fish, bacteria, and viruses were all members of the “animal kingdom” (the general consensus: bacteria and viruses probably were, but fish might not be).
It probably goes without saying that vast ignorance is an unfortunate basis for democracy.Tweet