Academic journal article Canadian Review of Sociology

Marginal Religious Affiliates in Canada: Little Reason to Expect Increased Church Involvement

Academic journal article Canadian Review of Sociology

Marginal Religious Affiliates in Canada: Little Reason to Expect Increased Church Involvement

Article excerpt

IN THIS PAPER, I address three questions about church involvement patterns based on interview data with 21 Canadian marginal religious affiliates (those who identify with a religious group and attend religious services primarily on Christmas and Easter, or for rites of passage such as weddings and funerals). (1) First, as we will see in the findings from this study, most marginal affiliates once attended religious services regularly (i.e., weekly). The question is why did they decide to stop attending on a regular basis? Second, why do marginal affiliates continue to attend religious services once or twice a year, particularly for religious holidays or rites of passage? Third, do marginal affiliates express any interest in being more involved in their religious group, and if so, what factors might lead to their increased involvement?

These questions arise in response to Reginald Bibby's (2002) conclusions regarding marginal affiliates and a possible religious renaissance in Canada. In short, Bibby suggests that many marginal affiliates are interested in pursuing greater involvement in their religious group and that changes to the supply of religion (e.g., speaking to people's personal and spiritual needs and offering more relevant music, preaching, or programs) could lead to a resurgence in levels of church involvement in Canada. (2) While there may be some truth to Bibby's interpretation, should we be so confident that marginal affiliates are as interested in greater involvement as they indicate on surveys and will changes to the supply of religion have the impact that Bibby forecasted? Although findings from 21 interviews will not ultimately support or reject Bibby's conclusions that are based on nationally representative survey findings, interview data can help to account for people's church involvement patterns in ways that survey data do not. For example, with interviews we can more effectively measure the intensity of marginal affiliates' desire for greater involvement and whether they have done anything to pursue greater involvement.

To set the theoretical context for this discussion, most sociological research on religion (especially Christianity) in Canada over the last 30 years points to the decreasing presence and influence of religion over society and individuals (see, e.g., Bibby 1987, 1993; Bowen 2004; Lyon and Van Die 2000). (3) Several recent observations support this conclusion, evidenced in decreasing levels of teenage and adult religious belief, practice and involvement (see Bibby 2006:192, 205, 2011; Bibby, Russell, and Rolheiser 2009:167-77; Harris 2009; King-Hele 2009), and increasing percentages of teens and adults who claire to have "no religion" and who "never" attend religious services (Bibby 2011; Bibby et al. 2009:177-78; Statistics Canada 2001).

Despite the mounting evidence that Canada is increasingly secular, Reginald Bibby, the foremost sociologist of religion in Canada, made a surprising assertion in Restless Gods (2002) that a renaissance of religion is, or soon will take place in Canada. Citing realities inside the churches, interest in religion and spirituality outside the churches, and indicators that Canadians are open to greater involvement in their religious group, Bibby claims that there is evidence that religion is alive and well (I will not review all the supporting statistics here, as that has been done elsewhere [Thiessen and Dawson 2008]). One of Bibby's most pertinent findings for the renaissance thesis is that 80 percent of Canadians who do not attend religious services regularly continue to turn to their religious tradition for important religious holidays and rites of passage and they have no intention of switching religious traditions (Bibby 1987:84). (4) Further, 55 percent of those who attend less than monthly (5) are open to being more involved in their religious tradition, if certain ministry, organizational, and personal factors are addressed (2002:220). …

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