Religious Beliefs and Spirituality in CanadaCanada is a large and stunningly beautiful country, occupying roughly forty-percent of the North American continent. It is the second largest country in the world (after Russia), with a total of area of just under 10 million square kilometers. Canada is also a very diverse nation, home to people of many different ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds. In the following article we will explore the many different religions practiced in Canada, and provide a brief description of each.
Religions of CanadaThroughout history, religion has played a huge role in the lives of Canadians. It has also served as a major source of conflict at times, being that the country is home to so many different religious faiths and traditions. Unlike people in other parts of the world, Canadians can never be assured that their friends and neighbors share their same belief system—or even believe in anything at all.
Regardless, the people of Canada are generally very religious, and nearly 70 percent of the population believes in God and belongs to some type of organized church. However, like many western nations, Canada is also becoming increasingly secular (rather than more religious), with religion serving as an ongoing topic of debate.
In current times, gathering religious statistics in Canada is not an easy task, nor is it an exact science, as the government stopped asking about religious preference after the national census in 2001. Nevertheless, many independent groups have taken it upon themselves to quantify the various religions practiced in the country.
According to recent surveys, Christianity is by far the largest religious faith adhered to in Canada, accounting for roughly 70 percent of the population. In terms of church affiliation, 43 percent of the population self identifies as Roman Catholic, 23 percent claims Protestantism as their religion of choice and another 4 percent practices some other form of Christianity. Within the broad category of Protestantism, 9.5 percent of Canadians belong to the United Church of Canada, 6.8 percent to the Anglican Church, 2.4 percent to the Baptist Church, and 2 percent to the Lutheran Church. Other faiths practiced in the country include Judaism, Islam, and, in much smaller numbers, Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism, among others. Sixteen percent of the population claims to follow either no religion (agnostic) or has no belief in God (atheist) whatsoever.
Christianity in CanadaWhen the French explorer Jacques Cartier first landed in Canada in 1534, he built a large cross symbolizing that the new land was not just claimed for France, but for Christianity as well.
Early immigration to Canada was dominated by Europeans. As such, Christianity has long been the most predominant belief system in the country. Even today, most Canadians identify with the Christian faith, and the Christian character of the country is present in everything from its national holidays to its family structure.
Christianity is of course based on the teachings of Jesus Christ, who Christians believe is the divine son of God. Most Canadians share in their love for and worship of Jesus, but despite this shared faith there has always been a divide in the country as to how that faith should be practiced. The majority of Canadians are either practitioners of the Roman Catholic faith or one of the sects that faller under Protestantism, particularly the United Church of Canada and the Anglican Church.
Roman CatholicismRoman Catholicism was introduced to Canada by the earliest European settlers, and to this day it remains the single largest denomination practiced by Canadian Christians. The religion was originally brought to Canada’s east coast by French colonists, and was soon spread across all of Canada by French missionaries; particularly members of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), whose travels across the harsh wilderness of the country have long been the subject of religious and secular legend alike. Today there are roughly 14 million Catholics in Canada, representing some 40 percent of the country’s population.
For hundreds of years, Catholicism in Canada was especially associated with the province of Quebec and the French Canadians living there, whose clergy were strong proponents of the most conservative faction of the church well into the 20 century. This fundamentalism sparked an entire history of fear and suspicion among non-believers and led to a lot of anti-Catholic sentiment in Canada. In fact, until quite recently it was very unusual for Canadian Catholics to marry non-Catholics or for children to attend non-Catholic schools.
Ironically, these days Catholicism is actually declining in Quebec, but the religion remains strong among other communities in Canada. This is particularly true of those groups hailing from traditional Catholic nations such as Italy, Portugal, Latin America, Ireland, Poland and the Philippines.
ProtestantismThe word “Protestant” is a broad term used to define any Christian sect or denomination that is non-Catholic in belief and organization. In Canada, although only about 30 percent of the population self-identifies as Protestant, the sheer number of Churches gives the religion a very strong national identity. The two largest branches of Protestantism in Canada are the United Church of Canada and the Anglican Church.
United Church of Canada
During the 17 and 18 Centuries, a wave of evangelical Protestantism swept through the British Isles, giving rise to a number of new populist churches that opposed the then-authoritative dominance of the Church of England. All of these new churches would eventually come to Canada.
The three largest of these democratic churches to land on Canadian soil were the Presbyterian, Congregationalist and Methodist Churches. Presbyterianism was, for the most part, a Scottish sect, one that denounced a national hierarchy of bishops in favor of a network of independently-run churches headed up by priests selected by a local council of elders, or presbyteries. Leaders of the Congregationalist Church went even further, arguing that only the church congregation as a collective could appoint priests. Finally, there were the Methodists, who avoided priests altogether and fiercely promoted the notion that each individual Christian held an obligation to preach and promote his/her faith, especially to the poor and poor of spirit.
These three churches/beliefs grew in popularity within Canada, and during the 19th and 20th centuries they enjoyed growing support among middle class Canadians outside the French-English duality, particularly Scots, Germans, Russians and Scandinavians. Believing that their religions had many more similarities than differences, the leaders of these three churches voted in 1925 to formally merge, forming the United Church of Canada. Today this sect has more than 2.5 million adherents and is the country’s single largest Protestant denomination.
Throughout most of Canada’s early history, the Anglican Church served as the faith of choice for most of the country’s non-Catholic Christians. It was particularly popular among Canada’s early British colonists and missionaries, much like the Catholic Church was favored by the French. During the 1700s and 1800s, Anglicanism was very much the church of Canada’s powerful Anglo establishment, and closely associated with conservative-minded men who dominated the country’s politics and commerce. Today, however, it has declined to third-place status in the faith rankings, with about two million followers (or around six per cent of the population).
The Anglican Church is a direct descendant of the British Church of England, which was established in the 1500s in opposition to the Roman Catholic Church. Once the state religion in the whole of the British Empire, spread by colonists who settled in the various regions of that realm, Anglicanism has now spread to dozens of sovereign nations as well. Although not as rigid as the Catholic Church from a structural standpoint, it does sit above some of the smaller Protestant churches, boasting a council of bishops holding the final say in all theological matters.
Recently, Anglicanism in Canada has become very well known for its controversially liberal stances on certain matters of Christian dogma, including the ordination of female priests and bishops and an increasingly charitable attitude toward homosexuality and same-sex marriage—the latter of which has proven to be a major source of debate and division among the church’s various parishes.
JudaismAlthough numbering less than 500,000, the Jewish population of Canada is actually the fourth-largest Jewish community in the world, trailing only Israel, France and the United States.
The Jewish religion is an ancient one, founded some three thousand years before the birth of Christ. It is based around the lessons contained within the Old Testament of the Bible, as well as a broad volume of commentary by centuries of Jewish thinkers known as the Talmud. In relation to other faiths, Judaism represents a large part of its believers’ cultural identity, with major emphasis placed on maintaining ancient and hallowed traditions and observing the faith’s customs, practices and holidays. Collectively this reverence helps maintain a sense of lasting community and identity among the Jews.
In Canada, most of the adherents of Judaism are descendants of Eastern European immigrants who arrived in Canada following the Second World War. Prior to the war, Canada had maintained a very anti-Semitic immigration policy, forcing most immigrants to settle in the United States instead. Today, the largest Jewish communities in Canada are located in the urban centers of Toronto and Montreal, where their small presence has often wielded significant influence in areas such as local art, cuisine, politics and commerce.
IslamIslam is often said to be the world’s third-largest monotheistic religious faith, and like Christianity and Judaism, it traces its origins to the ancient Middle East. The religion’s key principles involve reverence for Mohammed (c. 570-c. 632), a man believed to be God’s final prophet on earth, and the Koran, a holy book transcribed by the prophet to document God’s instructions to the faithful.
Muslims in Canada number over a half-million, and Islam is one of the fastest-growing religions in the country, a fact that can be partly explained by the recent influx of Muslim immigrants from Islamic nations. Of these, most hail from a small group of countries in south Asia and the Middle East, namely Iran, Pakistan, India, Egypt and Lebanon, and the practice of the faith in Canada remains heavily tied to the cultures of these communities as a result.
Of all the religions practiced in Canada, Islam is by far the most controversial, with polls showing them to be among the least-trusted segments of the population. This is partly due to the extremist attacks on the United States that occurred on 9/11/2001, which led many people to negatively associate the faith with violence and fundamentalism, and partially because of a larger secular anxiety with regard to the religion’s traditionally conservative views on women’s rights and free speech. As the country’s Islamic population continues to rise, such tensions seem likely to continue, but hopefully, so too will the aggressive attempts to promote interfaith understanding.
Other Faiths Practiced in CanadaApart from Christianity, Judaism and Islam, there are several other faiths that are regularly practiced in Canada, although the number of followers for each of these religions is comparatively small. They include:
Hinduism is practiced by roughly 300,000 Canadians, mostly immigrants from India. The Hindu religion can be very complicated to understand—a millennia-old religion based around a veneration of many different gods and ancient stories of morality and virtue.
The number of Sikh adherents in Canada is comparable to the number of Hindus and its membership is also dominated by Indian immigrants. In this religion, followers obey the teachings of the Guru Nanak (1469-1539) and his nine successors, who preach a message of adoration of a single god and strict lifestyle of modest, moral living. Like Islam, both Hinduism and Sikhism are heavily connected to the cultural identities of the immigrant communities they dominate.
Followers of Buddhism in Canada are slightly smaller in number than the two aforementioned categories of believers. Most adherents of this religion, which is based on ethical, happy living, meditation and material sacrifice, are immigrants from either China or Japan.
Agnostics and Atheists
Along with Muslims and Evangelical Christians, the fastest-growing segment of Canada’s religious population consists of those who are not religious whatsoever. Over four million Canadians claimed to have “no religion” on the 2001 census (the last census in which ‘religious preference’ was asked), and a 2012 survey found a record high nine per cent of Canadians who claimed to be outright atheists.
Finally, Canada is also home to very small sects of Pagans, Wiccans, Scientologists, Hare Krishna, and “New Age” spiritualists; so small that they have all struggled mightily to gain mainstream acceptance. There are also small groups who continue to practice their native beliefs—aboriginal faiths that existed in Canada prior to the arrival of the Europeans and Christianity.