Normalizing Denominational Statistics with Demographic Data: The Case of the United Church of Canada

By Wilkins-Laflamme, Sarah | Canadian Review of Sociology, May 2012 | Go to article overview

Normalizing Denominational Statistics with Demographic Data: The Case of the United Church of Canada


Wilkins-Laflamme, Sarah, Canadian Review of Sociology


AT THE BEGINNING of the twenty-first century, the debate over the exact nature of religion and its transformation in the western world remains ongoing. Religious data at sociologists' disposal, both quantitative and qualitative, continue to be interpreted in various and often contradicting ways. Many American researchers, such as Rodney Stark and Laurence Iannaccone, propose that plural markets characterized by a variety of religious organizations offering quality spiritual products keep religious indicators relatively high, even in modern times. In such markets, smaller and more conservative religious groups are seen to do better, offering rarer spiritual products in return for more involvement from the individual (Iannaccone 1988, 1994; Olson and Perl 2005; Stark and Finke 2000). Others, such as British sociologists Steve Bruce and David Voas, argue that the general trend is still one of religious decline in contemporary societies (Bruce 2002, 2011; Voas 2009; Voas and Crockett 2005). Others still find themselves somewhere in between supply-side and classical secularization theories, suggesting rather that various aspects of religion decline and transform at different rates; whereas institutional indicators of religion (e.g., church practice and membership) are on the decline, other more personal aspects of religion (e.g., beliefs, prayer, and importance assigned to Christian heritage) still remain relatively salient among the majority of individuals (Bowen 2004; Campiche 2010; Davie 1990, 2000; Hervieu-Leger 2003; Hout and Fisher 2002).

In the Canadian context, Reginald Bibby, one of the most prominent sociologists of religion in the country, predicted in his 2002 book Restless Gods that a certain religious revival was taking place due to churches better answering the spiritual wants and needs of Canadians (Bibby 2002, 2004). This prediction drew heavy criticism, most notably from scholars such as Kurt Bowen (2004), Joel Thiessen and Lorne Dawson (2008), as well as David Eagle (2011). They argue that data from sources such as the General Social Surveys and the Canadian Census show no signs of a religious revival, contrary to what Bibby observed with his Project Canada surveys dating back to the 1970s. Thiessen and Dawson (2008) contend that even these Project Canada surveys only show signs of a religious revival due to Bibby's selectivity of results. More recently, Bibby (2011) has continued to push the discussion further by proposing the existence of a polarization trend between the religious and nonreligious within Canada.

This debate over contemporary religious trends in Canadian society, measured mainly by quantitative data, has remained dependent on what little survey and census information there is on religion in the country. Although this type of statistic provides sociologists with an unrivaled and essential factual source, religious surveys and census data also have their limitations; the researcher is often restricted by limited sample sizes, making the analysis of smaller religious groups and narrower geographic regions near impossible; very few Canadian surveys focus on religion and thus have a restricted number of religious questions to derive trends from, questions that may also vary across the time span of the survey; many U.S. scholars have also found that certain religious variables are influenced by the phenomenon of social desirability, meaning that individuals may be inclined to claim a higher level of religiosity and religious activity than is actually the case (Chaves and Cavendish 1994; Hadaway and Marler 2005; Hadaway, Marler, and Chaves 1993; Marcum 1999).

Consequently, some researchers, most notably in the United States and the United Kingdom, have supplemented their analyses of survey responses with another statistical source: denominational data. Each year, many churches collect statistical information at the congregational or parish level, providing national and international data on aspects such as church membership/population, Sunday worship, number of congregations/parishes, practice of rites of passage, as well as financial revenues and expenses. …

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