Faith in the Public Square? A comprehensive study of the segments of Canadian society

Faith in the Public Square? A comprehensive study of the segments of Canadian society

Public Faith Proponents more likely to be younger, more educated, than those who voice Opposition

November 23, 2018 – The appropriateness of faith in the public square is often a source of debate in Canada. There are pockets of Canadian society where faith is valued and areas where it is discouraged.

A new study from the Angus Reid Institute, in partnership with Cardus, finds that when it comes to this debate, the Canadians taking each side may not be those that one may expect.

Using responses to 17 questions about their openness to faith in both their own life and the public square, researchers created a Public Faith Index and constructed three groups – Public Faith Proponents (37% of the population), Public Faith Opponents (32%), and the Uncertain (32%).

Notably, the results may challenge a traditional view of who Canadians within the Proponent group are. While one may assume this group is more likely to be made up of older and more Conservative voting Canadians, this study finds Proponents more likely to be younger, more highly educated, and largely Liberal-supporting.

This suggests that a range of Canadians – not just the highly religious – appear willing to accept certain elements of faith in public life. In fact, one-quarter of those who are most accepting of public faith have never read a religious text. Similarly, those with more strongly held religious beliefs may not necessarily be accommodating of the beliefs of others, or want to see them participating in the public discourse.

More Key Findings:

  • Three-quarters of Public Faith Proponents (73%) say that the contributions of faith-based communities to Canada are more good than bad, or good outright, while just six per cent of Public Faith Opponents hold this opinion.
  • Half of Public Faith Proponents (50%) strongly agree that having a religious or faith-focused upbringing helps shape good citizenship characteristics. The Uncertain are more likely to moderately agree (53%) while two-thirds of Opponents (68%) disagree with this idea
  • Canadians are deeply divided about the relevance of faith communities in addressing social issues. Regardless of political affiliation, half say these groups are increasing or maintaining relevance, while half say they are losing or have already lost it
  • Seven-in-ten (68%) Canadians say that the basics of world religions should be taught in public high schools, and that government leaders should be knowledgeable about the tenets of major religions (70%)



Part 1: Views on different elements of faith in Canada

  • Contribution to life in Canada

  • Role and relevance

  • Religious freedom and respect for religion

Part 2: Three perspectives on faith in public life

  • How they see faith in society

  • Who is in each segment?

  • Value of religious knowledge


Part 1: Views on different elements of faith in Canada

Some of the most divisive conversations in Canadian society this century have been about religion’s place in public life. Whether it’s the appropriateness of public prayer at council meetings, the acceptability of face coverings in public view, or the funding of religious schools, Canadians are confronting a number of issues that test the multifaith fabric of their society. It is therein, important to assess where Canadians stand on these debates for the furtherance of policy discussions.

The questions asked in this survey fall thematically into three broad groups:

  • contributions from faith groups to life in Canada,
  • the relevance of religion today in society,
  • and religious freedom and respect for religion.

The first aspect of the religious landscape to explore is views regarding the contributions of religious and faith communities, and whether these have a positive impact on a person’s development and contributions as a citizen within Canada.

Contribution to life in Canada

Canadians are generally positive when it comes to assessing the role of faith in public spaces. From assisting in social services, to operating hospitals, to advocating for social justice and human rights, Canadians are significantly more likely to say the contributions from religious groups are more positive than negative. There is one exception, however, where Canadians are more divided – the place of faith in education:

In some cases, those most supportive of the intersection of faith and public life are individuals in non-traditional demographics. For example, while they are often less likely to profess an active faith or take part in religious activities, younger, and university educated Canadians are more likely to recognize contributions from the faith-based community in the aforementioned areas:


Role and relevance

Although Canadians are more positive than negative regarding the contributions of faith in the public square, just one-in-ten (11%) say religion should ideally have a major influence on Canadian public life. Each age group is most likely to say that religion should have “some” or “not much” of a role in this space:

Canadians are evidently divided over whether or not they would like to see public conversations informed by what they might consider to be more personal beliefs. Asked whether they believe the relevance of religion is growing or receding when it comes to some of the social issues and challenges in the preceding section of this report, significant disagreement is noted. There is no better indicator of this than political affiliation. Regardless of which party they supported in the 2015 election, Canadians are split, resulting in an even divide overall:

Religious freedom and respect for religion

Does freedom of religion make Canada a better country? Most Canadians, roughly six-in-ten (59%) say yes. One-in-five say that they don’t think it makes a real impact either way, and 14 per cent believe that it makes Canada worse off:

If religious freedom is indeed a net positive as most Canadians say, then how do they feel their country scores on this front? Overall, three quarters (73%) say that they feel the government respects their religious community’s faith and traditions, however, this drops to 55 per cent among past Conservative voters, and rises significantly among past Liberals (86%) and past New Democrats (75%).

Looking at this at a more interpersonal level, Canadians are more divided. Asked about their own personal values, just one-in-three (32%) say that they feel society makes room for them, while one-quarter feel shut out (23%). A significant group say they have no real opinion on this matter – they either don’t know (10%) or say society has no impact on their expression of their own values (35%).


Part 2: Three perspectives on faith in public life

The Angus Reid Institute also created a Public Faith Index and concluded that Canadians can be grouped into three broad categories based on their responses to 17 questions.

Four-in-ten, named the “Public Faith Proponents” (37%), hold a supportive posture when it comes to increasing the public’s knowledge of faith and religion and recognizing their importance to society, while one-third (32%) feel the opposite and are categorized as “Public Faith Opponents”. This group generally feels religion should have a reduced role in politics and government. Another third (32%) take the middle position in this debate, with a more mixed view, and are labeled as the Uncertain.

These groups were created using an “additive index”, which incorporated responses to 17 separate survey questions, dealing with various aspects of faith and religion in public life. Each question’s response was given a score, on a standardized 10-point scale, where responses that were more positive or encouraging regarding the role of faith in public life were worth more, and more hesitant or outright negative responses, were given fewer points. Each respondent was then assigned a score based on the totality of their responses. Researchers separated groups along the Index roughly into thirds, based on their scores. For a detailed look at the questions asked and the scores provided, please click here.

How Canadians see faith in society

While relatively few Canadians believe that faith is contributing to their country in a negative way, the three groups are divided in their levels of ambivalence and positivity. For example, Public Faith Opponents are likely to lean toward ‘more bad than good’ (30%) or ‘a mix of good and bad’ (50%), while Proponents are substantially more likely to choose ‘very good’ (25%), or ‘more good than bad’ (48%) than the two other groups:

Similar distributions are noted on questions of values and character. Six-in-ten Canadians (60%) say that religious and faith communities offer strength to Canadian values, including equality and human rights, and two-thirds (65%) believe that faith-based upbringings can help to shape better citizens.

These responses, however, are highly variable between the three sub-groups. Those with an inclination toward more faith in the public square are near unanimous in agreement with these statements, while those opposed are almost as likely to disagree:

These divisions continue when looking at more concrete examples of how religious communities affect different areas of society. As previously mentioned, the area where Canadians are most likely to say religion has played a positive role is within the social services – helping people in need through community programs and outreach:


Related: Faith and Immigration: New Canadians rely on religious communities for material, spiritual support

Canadians are less likely to say that the influence and actions of faith-based groups have been positive within healthcare, education and social justice causes, though Public Faith Proponents are significantly more encouraged by what they have seen. Notably, on each question, the number of respondents in each group who choose “a mix of good and bad” is higher than those who say faith communities have had a negative impact (see comprehensive tables).

As a whole, Canadians lean in the direction of less influence for faith communities – 56 per cent say that this should be the case, while 44 per cent would like to see more influence. This question is a significant indicator of where someone may fall on the Public Faith Index. Notably, there is a significant source of disagreement between the groups as to whether or not religion has as much relevance as it should have, as seen in the following responses:

Thus, divisions exist over whether a decrease in the presence of religion in public life is a sign of social progress. Half (53%) believe it is, but this view jumps to three-quarters among Public Faith Opponents and drops to less than one-third (31%) among Proponents. Similar divisions apply to the policy of giving tax-free charitable status to organized religions:

A recent report from Pew Research ranks Canada as a world leader in religious freedom. As noted previously, Canadians are not entirely certain that this is a good thing. That said, the bulk of those who take the negative position on this question are situated within the Opponent group.

Notably, the proportion of each of these three groups that say Canadian society does not make room for their own values is consistent – between 21 and 26 per cent. This segment feels it is being ‘shut out’. Proponents are, however, much more likely to say that they feel Canadian society makes room for their faith and values.

Looking at this at a broader level, three-quarters of Canadians say that they feel the federal government is respectful of their religious community and traditions. This sentiment is much lower among those who do not believe there is as much of a place for faith in public life.

Importantly, those most likely to express comfort displaying their own faith in public are also much more likely to believe that it is appropriate to have faith play a role in the public square.

Other drivers of Canadians’ position on the Public Faith Index include their comfort with religious attire and symbols in the workplace, and their broader beliefs about diversity. Their responses to each of these questions help to further sketch Canadian willingness to create space for religion in their day-to-day lives, and further, in the public sphere:

Religious education for leadership?

The relevance of openness to faith in public society weighs on key public policy discussions. Indeed, some proposals that may seem divisive appear to be widely supported. For example, seven-in-ten Canadians (70%) would like to see their government decision-makers be knowledgeable about the basic tenets of the world’s major religions. Public Faith Opponents are divided, while others are overwhelmingly supportive of such an idea.

A similar level of support is evident when it comes to Canadian public high school curriculum. Just under seven-in-ten (68%) say that at least the basics of the world’s major religions should be taught at this level. More than half of the Opponent group disagrees (57%), but those more amenable to faith in public life show significant support for this proposal.

Who is in each segment?

While the conventional wisdom might be that the Proponents would be heavily represented by older, deeply religious and more conservative-minded Canadians, that does not appear to be the case.

This is partially due to the positive views of religion’s contributions to Canadian society found among some non-religious respondents, as well as to an absence of strongly negative opinions on questions of faith in Canada today. For example, one-third of non-religious Canadians have a positive view of religious and faith communities’ contributions to social services, while a plurality take a neutral stance:

Further, consider that among those who are categorized in the Proponent group, one-quarter have never read a religious text, and another 35 per cent say that they do so at most a few times a year:

The three groups also vary in terms of their demographic make-up. For example, compared to their regular distribution in the population, younger people (28% of population) are more likely to voice an openness to aspects of faith in the public square (they make up 34% of Proponents). The generation most likely to be overrepresented among Public Faith Opponents is Generation X, roughly those between the ages of 35 and 54:

Proponents also skew toward a higher level of education overall. One-third are university educated (32%), compared to 22 per cent of Opponents and 27 per cent of the Uncertain.

While the groups are divided roughly into thirds, past Liberal Party voters are much more likely to be Proponents, while the other two major federal parties’ supporters are distributed close to evenly in terms of their view of faith in the public square:

One piece of conventional wisdom that does hold up in these data is the likelihood of Quebec residents to see a lesser role for faith in the public square than residents of other regions. While Manitoba, Alberta and Ontario contain the highest proportions of proponents, four-in-ten Quebecers are found in the Opponent group. This is something the Angus Reid Institute has noted previously, particularly in terms of religious symbols and attire in public life:


The Angus Reid Institute (ARI) was founded in October 2014 by pollster and sociologist, Dr. Angus Reid. ARI is a national, not-for-profit, non-partisan public opinion research foundation established to advance education by commissioning, conducting and disseminating to the public accessible and impartial statistical data, research and policy analysis on economics, political science, philanthropy, public administration, domestic and international affairs and other socio-economic issues of importance to Canada and its world.


For detailed results by age, gender, region, education, and other demographics, click here.

For detailed results by the Public Faith Index, click here.

Click here for the full report including tables and methodology

Click here for the questionnaire used in this survey


Shachi Kurl, Executive Director: 604.908.1693 @shachikurl

Dave Korzinski, Research Associate: 250.899.0821


Feature Image courtesy – Michel Grenier FLICKR