by Angus Reid | April 22, 2016 9:42 am
Today marks the 50th anniversary of this BC leadership prayer breakfast. This is a great time to look back at what has changed in the past half century, take stock of where we are today and cast our minds forward another fifty years from now, (when many of us will not be here) to what our world might look like in 2066.
I’m humbled to be standing here this morning – especially as I consider the great and inspiring leaders who have spoken before me with their stories of courage , grace, love and redemption. I’m going to speak briefly about my story this morning but the main reason I’m here is to help all of us reflect on the greater Canadian story about faith, beliefs, and prayer.
We need to know the larger story because we live in an age where faith and religion are disparaged in many quarters. In recent years we have seen the rise of a new anti- theism in what some call the post modern world. We have witnessed the emergence of wide spread cynicism about religion driven by a toxic mixture of religious fanaticism in parts of the world and regrettable lapses in judgment among some religious leaders in our own backyard.
A couple of years ago I decided to largely abandon the world of commercial research and concentrate on research that explores the major social, political and economic issues of our time. The Angus Reid Institute is the non profit foundation that serves this goal and it is through the Institute that we have carried out several in depth studies of religion, faith and prayer in Canada.
Last year I did a major survey on religion in Canada in association with my colleagues at the Angus Reid Institute, Macleans magazine and my friend from Alberta, Dr. Reg Bibby who has spent his career charting the religious practices and beliefs of Canadians. We found that today only about 30% of Canadians say they fully embrace religion as a central part of their lives, about ¼ reject religion; while the largest group – 44% – say they are somewhere in between. For those of us who embrace religion, the glass is, at best, one third full!
Looking back over the last fifty years and its hard to escape the conclusion that this period has been tough on religions – especially as measured by weekly attendance at a place of worship. According to Gallup, which used to do regular surveys on this question, back in 1966 about 56 % of Canadians said they attended a place of worship during the past week. Today that number stands at 15%.
Seen through this lens the last fifty years hasn’t been wonderful. If attendance at church services is the guide; our society appears to be drifting massively away from religion. Yes, there are many pockets of hope and change but overall the situation isn’t good and, if one looks at the behaviour of young people, may get even worse.
But I did not come here to deliver a pessimistic address because, while religion is undoubtedly important, the litmus test of the faith of Canadians isn’t found only in church attendance. Another lens involves the thoughts and words of Canadians under the heading of this breakfast gathering – that is, under the heading of PRAYER.
I welcomed the opportunity to speak with you today because it seems clear to me that the starting point for any assessment of faith in our society must begin with questions about prayer. Prayer is, in many respects, the cornerstone of faith. The act of prayer is our human mechanism for reaching out to a divine, largely unseen power and involves some level of certainty that God, however defined, cares about and listens to us. Prayer without faith is simply an amalgamation of thoughts and words that disappear into the void. Faith without prayer makes us little more than bystanders to the majesty of creation. Together they fundamentally draw us as individuals into a personal relationship with God. Prayer reaffirms the nobility of each of us. It assumes there is a God who listens and may alter the currents of history to intervene in big and small ways.
In order to help us understand prayer in Canada I have done what people in my profession do when confronted with these questions; I conducted a poll. This extensive survey of a representative cross section of 1500 Canadians solely devoted questions on prayer and faith was conducted in March. Our report will be published next week but I wanted to use this address to share some of the key findings with you – findings that surprised, amazed and delighted me.
Before I do so let me take a moment to tell you something about myself – my faith and how it has informed my career and life.
I grew up in a large Catholic family with eight kids; a hardworking Dad and a smart Mom who had acquired a university degree by the age of 18 on a Catholic Woman’s league scholarship in Saskatchewan. We were a close and very religious family. Sunday Mass was just the start of a week that included prayer on our knees (the rosary) and visits to church services during the week. When I was in high school I suffered from dyslexia, I probably had ADHD and had a speech defect – my mother used to go to mass before my exams to pray for my success.
Despite my Mom’s prayers I failed grade 12 and spent a year working at various unskilled jobs which made me highly motivated to do a university degree. But it’s always hard to know God’s plan. During my year in the academic wilderness a life altering event occurred. On a Sunday night in the Fall of 1965 a cousin of my Mom’s, who was a Catholic priest, invited me to his parish on the other side of town where they were having a teen dance in the church basement. As a high school dropout I didn’t have to worry about my studies getting in the way so off I went.
Across the dance floor stood a beautiful girl named Margaret who would become my life partner and wife of almost fifty years. We married after I finished my first degree and then I went on to do a PhD. My Mom’s prayers had been answered but via a somewhat circuitous route that also produced two children and five grandchildren.
As a university student I was drawn to sociology which, unlike economics, had a wider spectrum to help understand society – a spectrum that included one of my favourite subjects – religion. The more I studied, the more I came to understand that for many, faith and values were far more important than economic self interest. Of course the fact that I had been trained by the Jesuits during my high school years and attended a Jesuit college for my first degree may have had some bearing on the importance which I placed on faith and values. I never imagined that one day a Jesuit who we now know as Francis would preach to a global audience about humility, mercy, sharing and the dignity of each human life.
I conducted my first survey in 1969 – part of a study of health and housing conditions in Churchill Manitoba – a small community on Hudson’s Bay which had been dealing with an epidemic of violence, sexual abuse and suicide. Sound familiar? Our study convinced the government of the day to make major investments in health care and community services. Though some problems remain the community was transformed and is now the Polar Bear capital of the world.
Fifty years later I have hand a hand, one way or another, in probably 3000 research studies involving almost five million survey respondents. I’m sorry to say that many of these proved to be banal studies on breakfast cereal and the like. Many were on political and policy issues. Some attempted to break new ground such as our efforts with CNN and the Economist in the early nineties following the fall of the Berlin Wall to better understand global public opinion. Sadly a handful, including our efforts in the last BC election were just plain wrong!!
Looking back through my files over the past fifty years there is a lot of historical survey data on religion and church attendance. But past surveys on prayer in Canada are hard to come by. My friend and colleague Reg Bibby has the best archive – he’s been measuring “private prayer” every five years starting in the early 1970s. According to Bibby the proportion of adult Canadians engaged in private prayer weekly or more has remained relatively constant over the past half century at about 40%. Those who only pray “sometimes” over this period is down a bit and those who never pray is up a bit. Compared to church attendance the pattern for prayer over the past 50 years has been remarkably stable.
But what about the world today – who is praying and why? What do we know about why some people have embraced prayer as a central feature of their lives while others have not. I’m not going to try to summarize all of the results of our survey instead I want to deal with four big findings – two that explode myths about prayer, one that explains why some pray more that others and finally a set of findings on the proverbial elephant in the room – does prayer make a difference beyond making those who pray feel better.
Giuseppe Giordan, the Italian sociologist who specializes in the study of prayer likes to remind colleagues that there’s something about prayer which plays a psychological role even for non believers. His department is next to St. Anthony’s basilica in Padua. He often observes that just before exams many students turn up at the basilica to light candle or offer a prayer. “Many of these student stopped going to mass years ago and some don’t even believe in God,” he said recently “but when asked why they pray the answer comes back ‘you never know’ – they remain open to the possibility that it may work for them.”
So prayer can be a complex subject.
In our recent survey we looked at seven different kinds of prayer from table grace and private prayer to prayer with family members and prayer at a place of worship. Across all of these measures combined, Canadians are divided into three distinct groups – frequent prayers who bring prayer in some form into their lives at least once per week – about 12 million adult Canadians, slightly more than 40% of the population. An almost equal number are infrequent prayers while only 15% say they never pray.
The full results of our survey on prayer in Canada will soon be available on our website – angusreid.org – but let me dive into what I feel are some of the more noteworthy findings:
A different perspective comes from our survey of 1500 Canadians – we asked those who prayed if they felt their prayers were answered. The results are fascinating – people who pray the most also are the most likely, by a wide margin to say YES. Seventy percent of the most frequent prayers in Canada say their prayers are answered always or often. For those who only pray occasionally, this drops to only about twenty five percent.
What’s unique about the most frequent “super prayers” is how they pray- their top reasons are to thank God, seek guidance, and ask for help, in that order. Less frequent prayers are twice as likely to ask for help and less likely to thank God.
I’m always cautious about assuming causation when I see a correlation but the experience of Canadians strongly suggests that if you want your prayers answered then pray often and don’t forget to offer thanks!
Finally let me say a word about the future. Will there be a prayer breakfast in 2066 to mark the 100th anniversary of this event?
Despite the upbeat assessment of prayer and faith in Canada today let’s not fool ourselves: there are many forces at work which seek to marginalize to role of faith, prayer and religion in our society. Our data suggests that young people may fall into a trap of confusing faith and prayer with some Hollywood inspired version of spiritualism complete with vampires and super hero’s. Add to this a very aggressive movement, inspired by a misguided reading of the separation of church and state, which would like to have the word “God” and “prayer in all of its manifestations” dispelled from every corner of the public square.
We are a nation that is known for trying hard to not give offence to any minority because we don’t want people to feel left out or excluded. But there must be limits to our reasonableness where fundamental matters of faith are concerned. Twenty percent of Canadians would like the word God removed from our national anthem, almost half oppose prayer in our schools and a third think it is inappropriate for a speaker at a high school graduation event to give thanks to God for the success of the students. The Supreme Court has already banned the use of prayer at municipal meetings and was divided in a recent case in Quebec over whether provincial departments of education have the right to mandate the content of religious curriculum for private religious schools.
The vibrancy of faith and prayer in our country can’t simply be taken for granted as a given. We need to become active participants if we are to maintain and build a nation that celebrates the foundation of faith and prayer that have served us in the past.
There are many things that we must do but three are obvious starting points:
First; We must do everything we can to promote our faith and prayerfulness – especially with children. This begins with parents and grandparents and reaches into the realms of education and entertainment. If there is one thing which our poll served to underscore it is that seed of prayer is planted in childhood.
Second, We need to support organizations that are committed to advancing our knowledge of the interplay between faith and civility and are prepared to stand up for the faith traditions that define our society. One such organization is Cardus which is playing an increasingly active role countering the ideology that would relegate prayer and faith to the margins of public life. One quick example of their work; of almost 700 projects officially endorsed by the federal government as part of our 150 birthday celebration, only one features the role of faith communities – both indigenous and imported – in the building of our great nation. That project is being undertaken by Cardus, which is reaching beyond its Christian roots to bring together leaders of all religions to celebrate our heritage of faith.
Finally, over the next fifty years we need to concentrate on finding and celebrating the common ties that bind the diverse religions and faith traditions that are found in Canada. We are a nation of immigrants and our data shows that people born outside Canada are twice as likely to be frequent prayers and often display a deeper faith than those born here. Many of these new Canadians are adding rich new dimensions to long established churches in Canada such as the Catholics who are actively building new churches to accommodate the demand. But many others are from religious communities such as Islam and Hinduism that though massive worldwide had a small presence fifty years ago.
As Canada comes to embrace ever larger and more diverse communities of faith we need to recognize that the vitality of each community is served by a unity of purpose to keep prayer and faith in a central position in the public life of Canada. Yes we will pray as we wish in our own temples but it is far better to find a form of public prayer that will serve our common beliefs about our good and generous God than to banish all mention of God from the public square.
Yes there will be a prayer breakfast in 50 years and for those of you who are still here, don’t be surprised to see a more diverse audience of faith communities – united in their thanks to God for the gift of this wonderful country and the hope that our leaders may have the wisdom and courage to recognize the role of faith and prayer in building a vibrant civil society.
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