Reginald Bibby, Beyond the Gods and Back

By Dennis Gruending

Reginald Bibby (Art Babych Photo)Sociologist Reginald Bibby is probably Canada’s closest observer of religious trends. He has been polling on religious practices and attitudes since 1975 and has placed the numbers into context in several books beginning with Fragmented Gods in 1987. Bibby has just released another book called Beyond the Gods and Back, and he spoke about it recently at an Anglican cathedral in Ottawa.

Bibby says that for many years he accepted the secularization thesis commonly proposed by most sociologists and researchers. In its most simple terms, Bibby says, “secularization refers to the decline in the influence of organized religion.” There are a variety of ways to track this situation but the one most often used is the frequency of attendance at religious services. Using Gallup Poll results from 1957, and later his own survey data, Bibby found that weekly church attendance in Canada fell precipitously among the population from 53% in 1957 to 24% in 1990.

Rational choice theory

Bibby has often expressed frustration that churches were not reaching out to those potentially receptive to their message. He used a “market model” or “rational choice theory” to make his point. He says there is a “constant demand” for religious responses to human needs centred on death and the meaning of life but “what varies is the supply side.”  Secularization, according to rational choice theory, does not necessarily lead to the end of religion but rather it can stimulate innovation. Various religious “firms” (churches or sects) will rise or fall on the basis of whether they can adapt and provide the right religious product.

By the year 2000, Bibby believed that his polling showed that resurgence in religious participation might be occurring in Canada. Among teenagers, he found a modest increase in the number who said they attended services on a weekly basis. When he polled among adults later in 2000, he found that weekly attendance had slipped only modestly between 1990 and 2000. In other words the decline in attendance was slowing down, and among some groups, notably conservative Protestants, it was increasing. The “firms”, or at least some of them, were responding to the demand. He wrote about that in his book, Restless Gods, published in 2002, describing what he saw as “something of a renaissance of organized religion in Canada.”

Religious polarization

Today, in the face of new polling research, Bibby says that to talk of a renaissance “might have been to exaggerate developments a bit.” His new phrase for describing what is happening in Canada is “religious polarization”. Bibby says that the number of people who never go to church (23% in 2005) is almost equal to the number of people who attend weekly (25%). In fact, he says that in the 2001 census, the number of people who said they have “no religion” (16%) was larger than those saying they belonged to any religious group, save for Catholics, who comprised 44% of the Canadian population.

Bibby says, “In probing participation trends, what we have failed to do is keep a close eye on everyone – not only the religiously active but those who are not particularly active or not active at all.” He also says that those saying they have “no religion” tend to be concentrated among younger Canadians. He concludes rather soberly that for the most part the “no religions” will not likely end up going to church.

Some religious groups have fared better than others. Catholics, whose numbers are being buoyed by immigration, are holding their own. Conservative Protestants have done a relatively good job in retaining their followers, including young people, but they are not growing rapidly. Mainline Protestants – the United Church, Anglicans and others – used to benefit from British emigration but that stream has dried up as Canada’s immigrant population now arrives from other continents. Bibby says the United Church and other mainline Protestant churches may soon be on “life support”.

Religious and non religious

Bibby says polling indicates that non-religious people appear to be as happy and fulfilled in their lives as those who are religious. But, significantly, he also says that religion does have a positive impact on what he calls “social compassion” or concern for others. This includes traits such as honesty, civility, forgiveness and generosity, including the donating of time and money to organizations and causes. “Those who are not religious do not lack for civility and compassion,” Bibby says. “But collectively they tend to lag slightly behind Canadians who are religious. To the extent that religion is making a contribution to social compassion in Canada, a decline in the proportion of people who embrace religion will be associated with a decline in the values and behaviour that make for social well-being.”

Bibby says that Canada’s experience with pluralism means that most people will tolerate religious polarization. But he cautions that it has the potential to test Canada’s “mosaic limits”. He is concerned about the tension between the religious and non-religious, and between some groups (Muslims perhaps or evangelicals) and everyone else. The debates over issues such as sexual orientation and abortion, for example, have been nasty. “On the religious side of things,” he writes, “when one believes that he or she has ‘seen’ or ‘heard’ the gods, such a sense of revelations carries with it a measure of authority and urgency. Conversely, the non-religious on looker can respond to faith claims with skepticism, cynicism or derision.” On that score, he is concerned by the fierce attacks upon religion by writers such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. He says they “have been treated as superstar celebrities” by the Canadian media.

Global data

Finally, Bibby says what has changed most for researchers is the ready availability of global data from organizations such as the Pew Research Centre and the World Values Survey. “For the first time in history,” he says, “we have data that allow us to look at religious developments in Canada in global perspective.” We know, for example, that in weekly attendance Canada (at 25-26%) resembles countries such as Ukraine and Germany. We are well behind the U.S. (43%) but well ahead of Sweden (17%). We know that that 99% of people in the Philippines, Pakistan, India, Iran and Iraq are believers in God and identify with a religion. Immigrants from those countries are most likely to be believers. We know that in Canada 78% of people hold a favourable opinion of Jews and 60% a favourable opinion of Muslims. In Pakistan, only 22% have a favourable opinion of Christians and a mere 5% have favourable opinion of Jews.

Political dimensions

Bibby deals with the personal and some social dimensions of religion in his polling, but seldom with the explicitly political. But religious loyalties, or a lack of them, do have political implications. People who are religiously conservative tend to vote conservatively, and they have received close and sympathetic attention from the current government. The Conservatives also believe that recent immigrants tend to be more conservative than other Canadians, particularly on issues related to family matters and sexuality. That helps to explain why Jason Kenney and other Conservative politicians spend so much time in selected immigrant settings, including churches. Other political parties have noticed and are making efforts of their own to appeal to faith-based voters.

On the other side of the equation, the people who say they follow no religion tend not to support the Conservatives. There is political science research by McGill University’s Elizabeth Gidengil and others to indicate that the NDP draws a good deal of its support from these avowedly secular voters.

Catholicism is easily the largest religious and most diverse denomination in Canada – with almost 13 million adherents (5.9 million of them in Quebec) when last measured by a census in 2001. It is seldom discussed publicly but all political parties are aware of the importance of the Catholic vote. Catholics have traditionally tended to vote Liberal but other parties are challenging that hegemony in both Quebec and the rest of Canada.

12 thoughts on “Reginald Bibby, Beyond the Gods and Back

  1. Dennis: Is participation in religious events via internet or via television included in these stats. I see the reference to ‘attend religious services 1x weekly’. Online and tv ‘attendance’ has become increasingly the trend amongst my boomer friends.

    Dennis replies: Thanks for your note. I believe the polling tracked actual attendance at a religious service and not a virtual attendance.


  2. Thank you for this excellent article on Bibby’s book, Dennis. It is easy to read and understand and comprehensive in its scope!


  3. It appears that for Bibby secularization has been replaced by polarization – but does this mean that secularization is declining or being matched by the percentage of people who are actively religious, ie both growing? What I find disturbing and would like to know more about is the connection between religion and social compassion. I am aware of the growing age concentration – more money and volunteers coming from those over 55, but not aware that they are also religiously active. There is a challenge to mobilize more younger and secular people to engage in volunteerism.

    Dennis replies: Thanks for your comments and questions Allan. I think they are dealt with in Prof. Bibby’s book Beyond the Gods and Back, which has just been released. If I read him correctly, he would say that there are a growing number of Canadians who are secular and a shrinking number who are “actively religious” to use your phrase. The attendance among teens is lower than it is among adults, although attendance has slipped among both groups over the longer term. Bibby is saying, however, that there remains a continuing (but shrinking) core among both adults and teens who are regular attenders, so that most religious organizations are not going to die out — and some groups are doing much better than others. But Bibby points to the fact that the numbers of those who say they “hardly ever” attend services are going way up. It is the group who says they attend occasionally that is shrinking quite rapidly. So that middle group is kind of being hollowed out. Hence Bibby’s use of the term polarization.

    Of course attendance at religious services is only one indicator on the religiousity index. There is a higher interest in spirituality when it is not perceived in structural terms such as belonging to religious organizations or attending services.

    Regarding social compassion, I won’t go into much detail here. Prof. Bibby would agree that many individuals who do not attend religious services or identify with a religion are indeed compassionate people. But according to the indices he uses (honesty, concern for others, politeness, forgiveness, generosity), he believes there are at least some differences between the groups who do attend and those who don’t. He would probably agree with Michael Peers, Canada’s former Anglican Primate, who said that: “if we [churches] were not around, the level of meanness would go way, way up.” Bibby, however, implies in his book that he expects to receive some disagreement on his conclusion about this.


  4. It would be much more interesting to see the data broken down demographically My sense is that church attendance, when compared generationally, would see a much steeper drop off. It would also be interesting to compare this between Catholics, Protestants and Muslims. Anyone know of any research?

    Also, I’ve heard that City by City comparisons of church drop-out shows Ottawa seeing the steepest decline of any city in Canada. Anyone have any data to back that up.


    Dennis replies: Thanks for your comment. Please see my response (below) to Allan about what Prof. Bibby has to say about generational attendance. Bibby also says that Catholics and conservative Protestants are much more successful at retaining their youth as attenders and identifiers than are mainline Protestants. He also says that Muslim teenagers in Canada are actually more likely to acknowledge their religion than are their parents. Finally, Bibby does break down attendance and identification with a religion by province. In 2005, the Atlantic provinces had the highest weekly attendance (39% of people polled) and B.C. had the lowest (17%).


  5. Thanks Dennis. I think a big part of the problem in Canada is that Christendom is over but most of the church leadership has not yet realized that. The churches are now on the margin of society but too many act and think like they are still at the centre. This is not secularism in the usual sense, but more like what Charles Taylor describes as a “secular age.” Religion will not disappear, but the churches are no longer important to the majority of Canadians. The challenge for those of us in the churches is how do we adjust to the new circumstances.


  6. Another great article. In it you quote Prof.Bibby, who says,”…there is a ‘constant demand’ for religious responses to human needs centred on death and the meaning of life..”

    It strikes me that Buddhism speaks to exactly that and leads me to ask if there is any research, not on chuch attendence, but on daily prayer or chanting (or meditation? I ask because I’m sure religion follows prayer, not the other way around. Your articles are so thought-provoking, thanks again.


  7. My hope from the process that you have described is that something new and spiritually good will born.

    Thanks for this post Dennis.


  8. Thank you for the summary of Bibby’s book. I think that polarization is a good way to describe the data. A caveat is that because the recent affiliation history differs between the mainline churches and other Protestants, data that combines all Protestants is not useful in most contexts.

    I think that churches need to recognize that continual adaptation is required. There’s a need for research that considers the impact of societal trends on participation. For example, do the trends toward later marriage and increased travel affect participation? May Bibby will get there next time.

    Dennis replies: Thanks for your comment. Actually, Prof. Bibby does draw distinctions between mainline and conservative Protestants in his figures and tables, and Statistics Canada does as well. Such categories can be useful but of necessity they create generalizations that mask a greater complexity. For example, there are many individuals in so-called “conservative” churches who may not, in fact, be conservative at all.   


  9. I believe that the question is not if people are religious but, “What do you believe the nature of God is?” We are drawn to the paintings of cathedral ceilings and glass windows to view a man with a white beard sitting on a throne. During this same time period the King James translation appeared and was slanted to attribute similar characteristics to God. But we know that this is not the nature of God. Yet even today the Christian Church preaches around this image of God as a super human character and people reject that image by the thousands. We are short changing God by continually fitting him into a vision that was conceived 1000 years ago. It is time we swept the table clean and looked at just how the world works and what is governing forces of consciousness.

    Researchers place electrodes on the brain to simulate a near death experience or other phenomena then state that God is just in our head. Yet I can attach wires and devices to my head and listen to music. That does not mean that orchestras do not exist!
    What we have to decide is if such a stimulation is strictly from our own consciousness or from a larger collective. Such experiments can just as easily prove the existence as well as the non existence of such a collective conscience. God is not a human and any spiritual existence is indeed on a spiritual level. We have to stop confusing the two.


  10. Very interesting topic…

    I have not read any of Bibby’s works, but discovering how religion has shaped society today – not just Canada, but other countries, that practice their own religion – is absolutely fascinating.

    I almost wonder how religious statistics have changed due to certain catastrophe’s/periods of time. For example, during each world war, or the great depression, did people turn to religion more often, or against it? You could argue for both: people would turn to religion for guidance and acceptance, almost to up their personal confidence. On the flip side, others may question their religious beliefs: “why are bad things happening to me? If ‘God’ was real, then he would never have something as bad as poverty or the death of a relative happen to ME…right?” And that can cause some people to start disbelieving, or turn to other religions for their answers. A more recent event can be 9/11, although not as extreme perhaps as World War or the Great Depression.

    You also look at some major sports figures, especially in the NFL: Maurice Jones-Drew, Ray Rice, Ray Lewis, Kevin Garnett, etc. They all believe in God and religion, and it comes from the fact that they all had quite rough backgrounds; poor when they were young, lived on hard streets, and sometimes were required to do nasty stuff meet their family’s needs. Religion is almost used by those who are in need – poverty or otherwise – as a way to cling onto something that is very dear to them. They almost use religion and belief as a way to get past all the hardship, and focus instead on the positives of life (happiness, working hard, etc.).

    I think it would be interesting if this was all analyzed… I’m sure Professor Bibby has already done this, but since I’m only a lowly high school student, I see all of this as fascinating!


    1. Dennis replies: Thanks Cullum for your very interesting and perceptive insights. You say that you are a high school student. If I were one of your teachers, I would feel quite intimidated!


    2. Hi Cullum:
      You are quite right that religion/faith can is used by many people as a way of ‘getting past’ hardships and focusing on the ‘positives’ in life. That’s to be expected since people don’t usually go looking for help when everything is just fine in their lives.

      What is easily overlooked are the ‘middle class’ or affluent people who are not suffering physical or emotional deprivation, but still ‘sense’ or ‘know’ something vital is ‘missing’ in their life that cannot be satisfied by material blandishments.

      There any single process or pattern of “conversion” and this means there is not always a single or specific moment in time when a person moves from unbelief to belief.

      For some people being ‘born again’ does happen in a flash but, for others, it’s a process that can take years. St. Augustine wrote about the restlessness of the human heart and how, for him (and millions of others through the ages) that restlessness is only assuaged once they recognize and acknowledge their need for God.

      There have been great cycles of ‘revival’ and ‘falling away’ from religion at various places and various times in history since the earliest days of Christianity. Often these revivals are triggered by times of hardship or great uncertainty.

      One thing I find very ironic indeed is how many people use religion or faith to prop up their own beliefs and thus avoid the need to change. If one examines what Jesus actually says in the gospels and compares it to what is being said in his name today, one finds there is certainly more than one ‘Christianity’ on the go in Canada today, and some of them are mutually exclusive.

      For example, Jesus taught that ‘you cannot serve God and wealth.’ Yet today many people see wealth as a sign of God’s approval of the way they life and/or the status quo and feel no obligation to assist the poor. For others, Christianity is simply a ‘flag of convenience’ used like paint to try and cover up serious blemishes in they way they live.

      Some people would say there is no way a Christian nation could purchase fighter jets while so many of its children live in poverty but, for others, God is their bombardier.

      A discussion on this blog that is quite instructive is the one on the recent federal CIDA cuts to Canadian churches working with the poor around the world. If you read those comments, you soon realize that, for some politicians, the real God being worshipped is profit.

      As with all qood questions, including the ones you pose, there is no ‘one size fits all’ answer. A good rule of thumb is that some one who says they have all the answers is most certainly wrong!


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