Welcome to secular Canada
Half a century ago, you didn’t need to be a social scientist to answer the question, “What do Canadians think of organized religion?” The answer was in the pews every Sunday, and in spanking-new Christian education wings built to accommodate a tidal wave of baby boomers who would grow up to carry the Christian torch into the future.
Or so it seemed. Shuttered churches, empty pews and defunct Sunday schools now proclaim a new, secular reality. Congregations wonder what the future holds — or even if there is a future. The institutional church is hobbled by structures and processes that made sense when the sky seemed the limit but today cost too much money and stifle creativity. It would be perfectly reasonable for embattled churches in 2014 to ask what Canadians think of organized religion and conclude, “Not much.”
But would that be the right conclusion? Enter the 2014 Observer Survey. To help bring some clarity to the conversation about the future of religion in Canada, we contracted the Toronto firm of Jane Armstrong Research Associates to poll 3,000 English-speaking Canadians on how they view organized religion in general and the United Church in particular. In the first part of the survey, respondents were asked to complete an extensive list of questions designed to reveal how much they know about churches, how they perceive churches and what they think about the people who attend churches. Then they were asked to answer a similar list of questions pertaining specifically to the United Church.
The results are a treasure trove of insights for anyone who cares about the present and future of churches — so rich, in fact, that we’re portioning our report on the survey over two consecutive issues of the magazine. In this issue, we’re focusing on the general results; in September, we’ll focus on what respondents said about the United Church.
It’s impossible to summarize the results here. But I will say this: if you’re trying to understand what secularism really means for churches in Canada today, you will find much to nourish you in the pages that follow. Some of the results may dismay you, some may confirm what you already suspected and other parts may surprise you — pleasantly. At the very least, this survey will help you and others put a face on secularism. And you just might find that the more you get to know it, the less daunting it seems.
• ObserverDocs: Observer Survey 2014 (Animated video)
* Jane Armstrong Research Associates was commissioned by The United Church Observer to design and conduct an online survey approximately 15 minutes in length among a sample of 3,000 English-speaking Canadians from Feb. 21 to March 4, 2014. Armstrong Research is a full-service, Canadian research company that has conducted and analyzed numerous studies on faith and religion in Canada. For more information about Armstrong Research, please visit www.armstrongresearch.com.
* The 2014 Observer Survey was made possible with a grant from the Hugh and Helen Mogensen Fund, through the Victoria Foundation and The United Church of Canada Foundation.