Religion and faith in Canada today: strong belief, ambivalence and rejection define our views

Religion and faith in Canada today: strong belief, ambivalence and rejection define our views

Largest group puts itself in the “mushy middle” on religion, ranks of those embracing faith are shrinking.

March 26, 2015 – A comprehensive and in-depth new public opinion poll on Canadian views towards religious belief, faith and multi-faith issues from the Angus Reid Institute reveals a solid core of Canadians continues to embrace the Christian faith and other religious traditions.

This study – presented in three broad sections, “Religious Pluralism and Polarization”, “Religion a la carte”, and “Topical Findings” – shows that atheists and agnostics are now part of a second significant, growing segment of people that reject religion.

A third and sizable segment of the population constitutes something of an “ambivalent middle” who say they neither embrace nor reject religion.

Angus Reid Institute

Key findings:

  • Just over one quarter, (26%) of Canadians say they are inclined to reject. Located primarily in the “no religion” category, their numbers have been growing in recent decades.
  • Nearly one-third – 30 per cent – report that they are inclined to embrace. Their numbers have been shrinking.
  • The remaining 44 per cent acknowledge that they are somewhere in between the two positions. They still hold many conventional beliefs and sometimes engage in religious practices, including occasional religious service attendance. They do not see themselves as particularly devout; but they also have not abandoned religion.
  • People living in British Columbia and Quebec are slightly more likely than others to reject religion, while residents of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and the Atlantic region are somewhat more likely to embrace religion.Angus Reid Institute
  • Ambivalence toward religion is the most common posture across age groups, although Canadians who are 55 and older are slightly more inclined than others to say they embrace religion.
  • Women differ from men only in being somewhat more likely to express ambivalence rather than rejection. That said, ambivalence is the top response for both women (48%) and men (40%).

Part One: Religious Pluralism and Polarization

Those Rejecting Religion:

Some one-in-four Canadians say they are not “into religion.” That number is consistent with current census data for people indicating they have “no religion”, and has increased significantly from one in twenty-five in the 1971 census of Canada.

To reject religion is not necessarily to be hostile toward religion. Some people in this category would be better described as “bypassing faith”.

The survey has found that 63 per cent of the people who reject religion acknowledge that they tend to “feel a bit uncomfortable around people who are religiously devout.” For their part, 41 per cent of those who embrace faith express the same trepidation about being in the presence of individuals who have no use for religion.

More than nine-in-ten of those who reject religion do not believe that it is necessary to either believe in God or be involved in a religious group “in order to be moral and have good values”. Some 68 per cent go so far as to maintain that “the growth in atheism is a good thing for life in Canada”.

Fully 80 per cent of Canadians who reject religion say they “prefer to live life without God or congregation,” as well as feel that “It’s important to live life in the here and now, because this is the only existence we will ever have”.

Angus Reid Institute

Angus Reid Institute

They are also, at least at this point in their lives, not so-called “good candidates” for religious recruitment: 78 per cent indicate that they aren’t open to “more involvement with religious groups”. That said, 22 per cent of this group say they have not closed the door on organized religion.

Those Embracing Religion:

A marginally larger segment of the national population – 30 per cent – tells us that they are embracing religion. That’s down from the 45 per cent of Canadians who said they were religiously committed three decades ago, in 1985. (Bibby, 1985)

More than half (56%) of the people in this category report that they attend services at least once a month. Close to nine-in-ten (86%) indicate that they pray privately on a regular basis, and about five-in-ten say that they both say table grace (52%) and read the Bible or other sacred texts at least once a month (45%).

Some Characteristics of Canadians Who Are Embracing Religion,Compared with Other Canadians
(once a month or more) Embrace (%) Ambivalent (%) Reject (%) Total (%)
Attend religious services 56 11 5 23
Pray privately/individually 86 42 14 48
Say table grace 52 16 8 25
Read the Bible, Quran, or other sacred text 45 9 6 19
Feel strengthened by your faith 79 30 12 40
Feel you experience God’s presence 68 22 9 32

Eight-in-ten (79%) Canadians who embrace religion say that they feel strengthened by their faith. No less than 93 per cent believe that God cares about them personally and – beyond mere belief – close to 70 per cent claim that they routinely feel God’s presence.

Among Canadians who are religiously involved (attending religious services once a month or more), 35 per cent report that their congregations have been growing in recent years, while another 42 per cent inform us that their group numbers have been staying about the same. The remaining one-fifth – 23 per cent – say their congregations have been declining in size. Contrast this with figures from 2000, when 32 per cent of those who embrace faith indicated that their congregational numbers were dropping.

Angus Reid Institute

One of the keys to understanding the current state of organized religion in Canada is to look at immigration patterns. Historically, the life-blood of previously dominant United, Anglican, Presbyterian, and Lutheran denominations was immigration from Britain and Europe. But as immigration patterns have shifted, so too has growth in different religions. With greater immigration from Asian countries in particular, the greatest increases have been among Roman Catholics, evangelical Protestants, and other major world faith groups.

 Immigration Totals: 2001 – 2011 (In 1000s)
2001 – 2011 Median Age
Roman Catholic 478 43
No Religion 442 33
Muslim 388 29
Christian, other 162 32
Hindu 154 34
Christian Orthodox 108 42
Sikh 107 33
Buddhist 62 38
Pentecostal 41 36
Anglican 23 51
Jewish 21 45
Presbyterian 17 48
United Church 10 52
Lutheran 7 46
Source: Statistics Canada; National Household Survey, 2011.

Other findings:

  • People born outside Canada are considerably more likely to attend religious services than people born in Canada (35% versus 21%).
  • Young arrivals aged 18-34 and 35-54 (increasing numbers of whom are coming from Asian and African countries) are much more likely to actively attend services than their older counterparts (49% compared to 27%).
  • Additional analyses shows a similar, though somewhat weaker pattern holds for the religious self-designations of younger arrivals from other countries: 42 per cent of those who are 18 to 34 say they are embracing religion, while 39 per cent are ambivalent, and 19 per cent are rejecting faith.
  • Similarly, 38 per cent of 35 to 54-year-olds born elsewhere are embracing faith – also well above the level for their Canadian-born counterparts.

Those Who Are Ambivalent:

The largest of the three segments of Canadians – some 44 per cent of the population – neither embrace nor reject religion. They tell us that they see themselves as “somewhere in between”:

  • They are the dominant grouping in every region, age, and gender category.
  • Are not pro-atheist: the majority (73%) does not believe that the growth of atheism has been a good thing for Canada.
  • Some 42 per cent say they are open to greater involvement with religious groups if they can find it to be worthwhile.
  • Four-in-ten report that they pray privately on a regular, monthly to weekly basis, and three-in-ten say they regularly feel strengthened by their faith.
  • 64 per cent said that they believe in a God who cares about them personally while 22 per cent feel they experience God’s presence on a regular basis.
Some Characteristics of Canadians Who Are Ambivalent About Religion,Compared with Other Canadians
Ambivalent (%) Embrace (%) Reject (%) Total (%)
Continue to identify with a religion 87 99 56 78
Attend religious services at least occasionally 74 93 36 70
Have attended a religious funeral in the past year 46 60 28 45
Have attended a religious wedding in the past year 19 37 17 24
Want a religious funeral 34 80 07 41

Regarding the religiously ambivalent, the survey also reveals:

  • 87 per cent continue to identify with a religious tradition.
  • They comprise around half of Catholics, Mainline Protestants, and other major world faith adherents
  • A full third say that when they die, they want to have a religious funeral.
  • One-in-three say they “sometimes feel guilty for not being more involved.”

While only 21 per cent of Canadians in “the ambivalent middle” have a high level of confidence in religious leaders, a rather astonishing 78 per cent think that “Pope Francis is having a positive impact on the world”. It’s interesting to note that the Pope receives “a thumbs up” as well from 63 per cent of those who reject religion.

Angus Reid Institute

Angus Reid Institute

Beyond the Three Religious Inclinations:

The Angus Reid Institute survey also explored a number of items relating to attitudes, social and personal well-being through the lens of religious identification.

Moral and Social Attitudes:

There are some similarities and some striking differences in the moral and social attitudes of Canadians who embrace religion, reject it, and are somewhere in between.

  • People who are pro-religious are more likely than others to say the Ten Commandments still apply today and less likely to agree that “what is right or wrong is a matter of personal opinion”.
  • Over half of those who reject religion endorse the contemporary applicability of the Ten Commandments. Conversely, 40 per cent of those embracing religion agree that morality comes down to personal opinion.
  • With respect of sex, sexual orientation, and abortion, people who embrace faith are predictably more conservative in their views than others. The attitudinal differences between the non-religious and the ambivalent tend to be small. It is worth noting that even those who highly value religion solidly agree that a legal abortion should be a possibility in situations where a mother’s health is seriously endangered.
  • About four-in-ten people in each of the three categories agree that war is justified. They are fairly uniform in not seeing Christianity as more likely than other religions to encourage violence. But five-in-ten in each of the three groups feel that such a generalization is warranted in the case of Islam.
  • Two illustrative social issue items dealt with euthanasia and with the status of women. The survey shows that Canadians who embrace religion are less likely than others to believe that a doctor would be justified in ending a patient’s life. Individuals who reject religion are slightly less inclined than others to agree that women in Canada now encounter little discrimination.
Religious Inclinations and Social Issues
Total (%) Embrace (%) Reject (%) Ambivalent (%)
Bases for Morality
The Ten Commandments still apply today 73 91 53 73
What’s right or wrong is a matter of personal opinion 51 40 55 57
Sex, Sexuality, and Abortion (Accept)
People having sex when they are under 18 83 69 93 87
Same-sex couples marrying 84 69 91 91
Availability of a legal abortion if mother’s health is seriously endangered 96 91 99 98
A woman being able to obtain a legal abortion for any reason 81 59 93 88
War is justified when other ways of settling international disputes fail 43 43 43 42
Christianity is more likely than other religions to encourage violence 12 9 20 10
Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence 51 58 49 48
Social Issues
Circumstances in which a doctor would bejustified in ending a patient’s life 80 61 92 86
Women in this country now encounter very little discrimination 44 47 38 45
Religion and Quality of Life
The decline in religious involvement has been a bad thing for Canada 48 86 11 44
Religion’s overall impact on the world is positive 51 80 15 52

 Social Well-Being: Civility and Compassion

There are few differences by inclinations toward religion when it comes to broad social compassion attitudes – such as people having a right to adequate incomes to live on, or our needing to be concerned about people in the rest of the world. In the latter instance, it’s worth noting that majorities in agreement are hard to come by.

Almost everyone maintains that they place a high level on honesty. But forgiveness is something particularly valued by Canadians who embrace faith, followed by the ambivalent middle and those who reject religion. Concern for others is another trait that is highly valued by more people in the pro-religious sector than others.

Helping behaviour – in the form of donating money to a charity or volunteering one’s time – tends to be more characteristic of people who value faith than others. Attempting to assist a stranger in need of help, however, is equally initiated by slightly over 50 per cent of individuals, regardless of their religious inclinations.

Personal Well-Being: Joys, Concerns, and Happiness

The Angus Reid Institute survey examined a number of personal characteristics that could be examined in relation to religious inclinations:

  • Family and friends are enjoyed by the vast majority of people in all three sectors, led slightly by Canadians who value faith. One’s enjoyment of work is not uniquely influenced by one’s religious orientation.
  • Concerns about issues such as health, money, and time are highly uniform across all three religious inclination categories. However, people who are religiously ambivalent are somewhat more likely than others to indicate that they feel they “should be getting more out of life.”
  • Relational and personal happiness levels differ little by religious inclinations.

Part Two: Beliefs and Practices: “Religion à la carte” Persists in Canada

Canadians may not be as inclined as they once were to adopt religion as a total package, complete with conventional beliefs, practices, and teachings. That said, the Angus Reid Institute poll reveals the majority of people across the country nonetheless continue to hold on to religious bits and pieces, picking and choosing from a wide range of items that are available in a lively spiritual and religious marketplace.

The Ultimate Questions

There has been little change dating back to at least the 1970s in the inclination of Canadians to raise deep questions about life’s purpose, how can we experience happiness, why is there suffering in the world and what happens after we die.

More than nine-in-ten say that they have raised such questions, with some three-in-four Canadians indicating that they continue to be issues that they reflect on “sometimes” or “often”.

Angus Reid Institute

Supernatural Beliefs

Belief in God or a higher power has slipped somewhat since the 1970s when we compare the current survey results with the Bibby, Project Canada Survey Series (see table below). Still, more than 70 per cent of Canadians today express belief in a “Supreme Being”.

Some two-in-three (66%) Canadians acknowledge that they believe in life after death – virtually the same proportion as in the mid-70s. Belief in heaven (63%) is down slightly from earlier years, once more, it would seem, a reflection of greater religious and non-religious diversity.

What has remained steady are beliefs that we can communicate with the spirit world (50%) and with people who have died (43%) – with the latter belief on the rebound after dropping in the 1980s and 90s. Belief in the existence of hell has remained steady since at least the 1980s (42% in the current survey).

Since at least the 1980s, more than six-in-ten people have asserted their belief in angels (62% currently). What’s more, close to the same proportion (56%) report that they feel they have had times in their lives when they have been protected by a guardian angel.

The survey has found that Canadians give credibility to a number of additional “non-scientific” ideas that we explored with them.

  • Half of Canadians (51%) believe that some people have psychic powers. And the same number (49%) of adults across the country maintain that they personally have experienced an event before it happened (precognition).
  • “Miraculous healing” that seems to defy rational, medical explanations is something that seven-in-ten (69%) Canadians say they believe takes place.
  • And, dating back to at least the 1970s, a fairly consistent one-in-three (35%) Canadians have reported that they believe in astrology.

The Pervasiveness of à la carte Beliefs

What’s intriguing is the documentation of the persistence of such a wide range of beliefs about the supernatural and supernatural phenomena. The survey findings show that people who are ambivalent about religion consistently seem to be open not only to religious beliefs, but to a range of other non-naturalist beliefs as well, such as psychic phenomena and astrology.

The survey findings suggest many Canadians may feel they cannot live by rationality alone – and that many either opt for a higher power, the gods, chance or luck in the course of understanding their life’s path.

Part 3: Highlights of the Study’s Topical Findings

The Angus Reid Institute study looked at a number of topical issues and how views on these align with religious identification and orientation. These topics are summarized below and include:

  • How do Canadians identify – as spiritual or religious?
  • Social attitudes such as the justification for war and the persistence of gender discrimination
  • Matters of sexual morality
  • Moral relativism
  • Views of religion in Canada
  • Attitudes towards various religious groups

Spiritual or Religious?

Spiritual: of, relating to, or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.

Religious: relating to or believing in a religion…forming part of someone’s thought about or worship of a divine being – Oxford Dictionary online

Canadians are more likely to self-identify as spiritual rather than religious by a margin approaching two-to-one.

A total of 63 per cent describe themselves using one of two spiritual options – 39 per cent chose “spiritual but not religious” (the most popular single option) and another 24 per cent opted for “spiritual and religious”. Ten percent chose “religious but not spiritual”, producing a total of 34 per cent for one of the two religious characterizations. A total of 27 per cent said they see themselves as “neither religious nor spiritual”.

How does this line up against overall orientation towards religion? Certainly, there is alignment, but it is far from precise and underlines the observation that increasing secularization is occurring against a backdrop of persistent spirituality.

Angus Reid Institute

  • Those inclined to embrace religion tend to see themselves as both spiritual and religious (60% chose this option)
  • Those inclined to reject religion tended to opt for “neither” (57%), but fully four-in-ten (41%) instead see themselves as “spiritual but not religious”
  • The ambivalent group tends to choose spiritual, but not religious (53%), though one-in-four say “neither” and one-in-ten selected each of the other options.

Angus Reid Institute

Social Attitudes

This study also examined how Canadians’ views on broad social issues align with religious identification and orientation. A number of social issues examined elicit a fairly divided opinion from Canadians overall, and also meet with quite different assessments across specific religious and socio-demographic segments.

“War is justified when other ways of settling international disputes fail”:

Canadians disagree with this sentiment by a margin of 57 per cent to 43 per cent. Views do not vary markedly across religious descriptors. But, demographically, there is a large gender gap with men tilting towards agreement with this war justification statement. (Tracking data from 10 and 20 years ago showed consistent levels of agreement, but the “Cold War” 1985 reading found much lower levels of agreement with this statement.)

“We need to worry about our own country and let the rest of the world take care of itself”:

This statement elicited a similar overall divided response with 54 per cent of Canadians surveyed disagreeing and 46 per cent agreeing.

Looking at the results by religious orientation shows this is an area of common ground for those who embrace and those who reject religion — in contrast to the more isolationist perspective of the more ambivalent middle. And looking at religious identification shows evangelical Protestants and those who identify with “other” religions take the more internationalist perspective. There is also a major generation gap with young Canadians evenly split in contrast to the decidedly internationalist perspective of those over 55. (Tracking data for this items shows much higher levels of agreement — that is, a more isolationist perspective — in 2005).

Angus Reid Institute

“Women in this country now encounter very little discrimination”:

On this item on gender equality, 44 per cent agree and 56 per cent disagree. The results show significant differences among socio-demographic and religious groupings. Of course, the gender gap is major: women disagree by a large margin of 64 to 36 per cent, while men are evenly split. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, younger Canadians are also split on this whereas those middle-aged and older are less convinced gender discrimination is a thing of the past.

By religious identification, this statement gets the same split response from both Evangelical Protestants and RC’s – and a divergence of views among RC’s within and outside Quebec. The latter, along with Mainstream Protestants, those who identify with “other” religions, and “no religion” tend to disagree with this assertion that gender discrimination is a thing of the past. Tracking data (Project Canada Survey Series) shows Canadians are more concerned today than 10 years ago that problems of gender discrimination persist.

Angus Reid Institute

Sexual Morality

This study also looked at sexual “morality”, again with a view to exploring how these issues align with religious identification and orientation. The question specifically asked those surveyed to indicate whether they “approve and accept”, “disapprove but accept” or “disapprove and do not accept” different so-called “sexual morality” scenarios.

On same-sex couples marrying:

  • A total of 63 per cent of Canadians overall “approve of and accept” this, 21 per cent “disapprove of but accept” and 16 per cent “disapprove and do not accept”. Socio-demographically speaking, the majority of Canadians from all walks of life “approve and accept” – with the one exception of men over 55 where this dips below the majority mark.

Views do vary markedly by religion with much lowers levels of approval noted among: Evangelical Protestants (the plurality disapprove and do not accept in both cases) as well as “other Christians”, regular attenders, and those inclined to embrace religion.

Tracking data (Project Canada Survey Series) for these items shows the proportion of Canadians who “approve and accept” of these same-sex rights has increased by 15 points and 20 points respectively since 2005.

Angus Reid Institute

Similar patterns are in evidence for the two scenarios concerning women’s access to legal abortions:

  • A woman being able to obtain a legal abortion if her health is seriously endangered: Fully 85 per cent “approve and accept”.
  • A woman being able to obtain a legal abortion for any reason: 51 per cent “approve and accept”, 29 per cent “disapprove but accept”, and 19 per cent “disapprove and do not accept.”

Access to abortion when the life of the mother is in danger is condoned by Canadians from all walks of life – including across the various religious segments.

The picture is different when it comes to abortion for any reason; here, we see some population groups withdraw their approval (if not their acceptance), including: prairie dwellers, older Canadians- especially older men, and those with less formal education.

And, the same religious groups are much less likely to “approve and accept”, especially Evangelical Protestants, a majority of whom (54%) “disapprove and do not accept” abortion for any reason. Among Canadian Catholics (those who indicate that best describes their religion), the number who “approve and accept” dips below the majority mark (45%), with 35 per cent saying they “disapprove but accept” and only 20 per cent saying they “disapprove and do not accept”. This latter figure is a full plurality of 42 per cent among regular Church-attending Catholics – who have very different views than those self-identified Catholics who do not attend Church.

Angus Reid Institute

Angus Reid Institute

Two other issues of sexual morality were examined in the poll:

  • Unmarried adults having children: 70 per cent of Canadians “approve and accept” this, including a majority from all major socio-demographic groups. As on the other items, we see the most resistance voiced by Evangelical Protestants, other Christians, regular attenders and those who embrace religion.
  • People having sex when they are under 18: This causes more consternation among Canadians: 36 per cent indicated they “approve and accept” of minors having sex while the plurality of 47 per cent “disapprove but accept” and 17 per cent “disapprove and do not accept”.

Socio-demographically we see considerably higher acceptance among Quebecers, men, young people and therefore younger men in particular. Rejection of under-age sexual activity is highest among those same religious segments offering more conservative views on the other sexual morality issues. Meanwhile, those inclined to reject religion and those with no religious identity tend to be more comfortable with under age sex.

Moral Relativism

An overall question aimed at gauging Canadians’ broad views on personal morality asked survey participants to agree or disagree with this statement: “What’s right or wrong is a matter of personal opinion”.

Here, we get an even split across Canadians as a whole on a near perfect curve: 51 per cent agree (18% strongly, 34% generally) and 49 per cent disagree (32% generally, 17% strongly).

Much bigger differences are noted by personal religiosity. Those Canadians with no religious identification and non-attenders and those who reject religion tend to agree with the moral relativism statement. Those who identify Roman Catholic also tend to hold to this view (57% overall, 63% among Quebec Catholics versus 52% in ROC). Evangelical Protestants and other Christians take a strong majority view against the moral relativism position as do those broadly inclined to embrace religion.

At the same time, and as noted earlier in this report, there is across-the-board solid agreement that “it is not necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values” (82% of Canadians agree) and “it is not necessary to go to church in order to be moral and have good values” (89% agree, including all the religious segments we have been examining).

Angus Reid Institute


Views of Religion in Canada

The study included some key measures gauging Canadians’ overall views on the role of religion in Canada today.

Those surveyed were asked to indicate their agreement or disagreement with the statement: “I think the growth in atheism is a good thing for life in Canada”. Here, we see two-in-three (67%) Canadians disagreeing while one-in-three (33%) agree. This majority disagreement that atheism is beneficial for the country is in evidence across the board except among those Canadians who are inclined to reject religion.

Angus Reid Institute

But Canadians do not go so far as to say “I think the decline in religious involvement has been a bad thing for Canada”. Here we see an even split with 48 per cent agreeing and 52 per cent disagreeing.

And what about religion’s overall impact? We asked Canadians to agree or disagree with this statement:

“I think that religion’s overall impact on the world is positive”.

Again, we see a split opinion on this very fundamental question with 51 per cent agreeing and 49 per cent disagreeing. Much like the preceding items, the detailed survey results show huge differences of opinion by religious orientation. Those who embrace religion are quite convinced it has a positive impact on the world, whereas those who reject it are equally strongly convinced the opposite is true. Demographically, we again see a significant generation gap with most (56%) younger Canadians disagreeing that religion has had a positive impact while the same number (57%) of their older counterparts agree with this characterization.

Angus Reid Institute

Angus Reid Institute

Attitudes towards various religious groups:

This Angus Reid Institute study assessed people’s overall views of some of the largest and most important faith groups. This exploration simply involved asking Canadians how they feel – positive, neutral or negative – about each of 10 different religious groups. The results paint a fascinating portrait of Canadians’ overall orientation towards various forms of the religious “other”.

Overall Attitudes

Three religious groups emerged with substantially positive images among the broad Canadian public:

  • Roman Catholics – 49 per cent feel positive towards RC’s, 38 per cent neutral and 13 per cent negative. (For comparison purposes, we’ll assign each group an image score calculated simply by subtracting the proportion who feel negative from the proportion who feel positive – the higher the score, the more positive net rating for that group. The image score for Roman Catholics is 49 minus 13: +36.)
  • Protestants – 44 per cent positive, 48 per cent neutral, 8 per cent negative. (Image score: also +36)
  • Buddhists inspire almost as positive feelings among Canadians as a whole (despite having far fewer official adherents in this country): 44 per cent of those surveyed said they feel positive about Buddhists while 47 per cent said neutral and 9 per cent negative. (Image score: +35)

Followers of two other faiths also emerge with overall positive ratings:

  • Jews – 39 per cent positive, 49 per cent neutral, 12 per cent negative. (Image score: +27)
  • Hindus – 27 per cent positive, 57 per cent neutral, 16 per cent negative. (Image score: +11)

The results show Evangelical Christians and atheists are more polarizing with Canadians roughly as likely to express a negative as a positive feeling about each of these groups (though definitely not the same respondents in each case).

  • Atheists – 27 per cent positive, 51 per cent neutral and 22 per cent negative. (Image score: +5)
  • Evangelical Christians – 30 per cent positive, 43 per cent neutral and 27 per cent negative. (Image score: +3)

The remaining three groups emerged from this exercise with a net negative overall public image:

  • Sikhs – 17 per cent positive, 56 per cent neutral, 26 per cent negative. (Image score: -9)
  • Mormons – 18 per cent positive, 47 per cent neutral, 35 per cent negative. (Image score: -17)
  • Muslims – 15 per cent positive, 40 per cent neutral, 44 per cent negative. (Image score: -29)

Angus Reid Institute

The Groups’ Self-ratings

Of course, a major part of the relative rankings reflects the reality that Canada by population is a majority Christian country – and people tend to feel more positive about “their own kind” than about the “other”. And in this case as well, religious groups are rated considerably more positively by their own members than by people of other religious backgrounds.

For example, among those surveyed Canadians who said Roman Catholic (RC) best describes their religion, a full 70 per cent reported a positive view of Catholics and only 4 per cent a negative view for an image score of +66.

As we saw above, Catholics’ overall image score among all Canadians was +36. If we remove them from the sample and just look at the views of non-RC’s, we get a much more modest image score of +17.

(Catholics’ self-rating is an area of close agreement for Quebec and other Canadian Catholics. In contrast, Quebec RC’s give lower image scores to most of the other religious groups assessed and a +10 rating to atheists compared to the -6 among ROC RC’s)

Likewise, in the case of Evangelical Protestants, their own image score is +70, in contrast to the +3 observed across the Canadian population as a whole.

For Mainline Protestants, their own rating of “Protestants” is +68.

The same phenomenon is noted for atheists. Those inclined to reject religion give atheists an image score of +47. Overall, it was +5. With “rejecters” removed, the atheist score becomes -19.

We don’t have sufficient sub-sample sizes to look at self-ratings of the other, non-Christian religious groups assessed. We’d certainly expect higher self-ratings among these other groups as well – but they are not sufficiently numerical to influence the overall numbers to the extent noted for the larger (in Canada) groups.

Views of each other

How do the religious groups see each other? Catholics’ ratings tend to reflect the overall totals (except their self-rating, of course), with slightly higher scores for Hindus and Mormons (still negative for the latter) and Evangelical Protestants (+16). Catholics express a less positive view of Jews (+25) than their Mainline (+46) or Evangelical Protestant (+49) counterparts.

Evangelical Protestants give Catholics a higher rating than vice versa (+34), but offer substantially more negative ratings for all non-Christian religious groups assessed with the one important exception of Jews (+49). Evangelicals are the only group to have a net negative view of Buddhists (-10) and give by far the most negative views of atheists (-50).

Mainline Protestants tend to give more positive ratings to the other religious groups than Catholics or Evangelical Protestants (except in the case of that latter group, Mainline Protestants express some negativity towards Evangelicals.)

As noted above, this survey does not afford adequate sub-sample sizes for other, non-Christian religious adherents and so these have, somewhat inelegantly, been grouped together under “Other Religions”. This diverse group of non-Christians tends to assign more positive ratings to non-Christian religions and consistently more negative ratings to the Christian groups assessed – Roman Catholics (0), Protestants (+10) and Evangelical Protestants (-22).

Finally, in the case of those indicating they have no religious identity or that they are inclined to reject religion, the research also finds relatively lower ratings for the Christian groups- roughly average for the non-Christian groups (except more negative in the case of Jews) and much more positive views of atheists, as noted above.

Socio-demographic differences:

  • Regionally, the two coasts offer a lot of contrast. BC residents give consistently lower ratings to the Christian groups assessed, and save their highest for Buddhists. Atlantic Canadians give relatively high marks to the Christian groups and (along with prairie dwellers) are much more wary of atheists. Quebec is exceptional for the relatively lower ratings assigned to Muslims, Sikhs and Jews.
  • There are also some big age differences. Older Canadians give the main Christian groups relatively higher ratings (scores around 50 for RC’s and Protestants compared to the roughly 20 points among younger Canadians). Older Canadians are more wary of atheists (-9 versus +16). Those over 55 also gave relatively more positive (or less negative) ratings of Jews and Mormons.
  • And across educational strata, we see consistent overall attitudes towards the main Christian groups assessed – except for Evangelicals who receive lower ratings from university-educated Canadians. This more educated group tends to feel more positively about the non-Christian groups assessed and towards atheists as well.

Other research in Canada and the US

Angus Reid has conducted similar explorations on this subject. Specifically, in 2009 and 2013, Canadians were asked if they held overall favourable or unfavourable views of the world’s main religions – as opposed to this current study’s focus on the religions’ adherents.

While not directly comparable, that earlier research placed the main religions in the same overall order: Christianity with the most favourable ratings, followed by Buddhism, Judaism and Hinduism, while Sikhism and Islam emerged with net unfavourable images.

Pew Research assessed the American landscape last year. Again, the questioning approach was different so the results are not directly comparable. But we can look at the overall ranking patterns and see some interesting contrasts between the two countries.

Most striking is the relatively higher regard Americans extend to Jews, Evangelical Protestants and Mormons, and the relatively lower regard extended to atheists. Indeed, in the US, atheists ranked second lowest to Muslims, and much lower than Evangelicals (in contrast to their essentially equal ranking here) and lower than Mormons (who atheists outranked in our Canadian study). In both countries, Islam and its followers are assessed most negatively by the broader public.

Click here for full report including tables and methodology

Click here for Questionnaire used in this survey

Image Credit: Jeff Wallace/Flickr

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