TWU institute reflects growing interest in religion
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By Jim Coggins

Michael Wilkinson directs the Religion in Canada Institute, based at Trinity Western University.
THERE IS growing interest in the study of religion in Canada – but we know very little about the subject.

That is one conclusion that could be drawn from a workshop held February 9 at Trinity Western University (TWU). The workshop was the first major project of TWU’s Religion in Canada Institute (RCI).

Michael Wilkinson, director of RCI, said one of the event’s achievements was “bringing together as many scholars as we did from as many disciplines as we did.” The 30 or so conference attendees included academics in sociology, history, anthropology, religion, political science, English and health care.

This was important, Wilkinson said, because scholars in different disciplines may be studying similar things but not know of each other’s work.

Lori Beaman, who holds the Canada Research Chair in the Contextualization of Religion in a Diverse Canada at the University of Ottawa, said the workshop was “incredibly valuable” because of the opportunity to connect with scholars she might not otherwise have met.

One of the assertions made repeatedly at the workshop was that mainstream universities in Canada have to a large degree ignored the study of Canadian religion, although there are some signs that this is changing.

Canadian universities have had “a long history of not taking religion seriously,” said Beaman, who suggested this was partly because universities had bought into “the myth of secularization.” Academics were convinced that religion would “just disappear and not be important,” she said.

“This assumption of secularization has slowed down our understanding of religion in Canada,” concurred Wilkinson.

But declining church attendance should not be equated with secularization, Beaman warned, and interest in the impact of religion on people’s lives remains high.

“There is so much religious activity going on at the ground level,” said Wilkinson, “but we can’t see it at the top.”

This neglect of religion followed by a growing interest was reflected in presentations which summarized academic work that has been done in four disciplines.

Pamela Klassen from the University of Toronto said that in the past, anthropologists studied native religion in Canada but “distrusted Christianity because it destroyed the cultures they wanted to study.”

However, younger anthropologists, with less antagonism to Christianity, have now begun to look at subjects such as the interaction of native culture with European and ‘Christian’ culture.

Solange Lefebvre from the Universite de Montreal observed that universities in Quebec virtually abandoned the study of religion in Quebec during the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, in reaction against the power of the Roman Catholic Church.

Again, however, a younger generation of scholars have become interested because of issues such as secularization, immigration and the recent ‘reasonable accommodation’ debates.

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Mark McGowan of St. Michael’s College in Toronto said that before the 1970s, the study of Canadian religious history was “done by clerics in divinity schools.” Now it is being done by academics in universities, who are often more interested in studying popular religion, rather than institutions. In the last decade, there have been hundreds of books and articles written on Canadian religious history.

In contrast, Sam Reimer from Atlantic Baptist University said the growing interest in religion is “not on the radar” of most sociology departments in Canada.

One frequently made observation is that government bodies such as the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) give little funding to religious research proposals because they don’t think religious studies are important. One indication that this situation is changing is that the SSHRC provided the funding for the IRC workshop.

“There is a growing interest in religion among scholars generally,” said Beaman. For instance, one of the leading introductory sociology textbooks for the first time is adding a chapter on the sociology of religion.

One of the dangers of that, she said, is that “a lot of people are diving in” to the subject who know nothing about religion, who haven’t studied past research, and yet are making scholarly pronouncements.

Another problem is that religion in Canada has been dominated by several large Christian denominations, such as the Roman Catholic Church and a few mainline Protestant churches.

The result is that many of the religious questions studied by scholars are based on an institutional framework that suits these denominations but doesn’t work for minority Christian groups, popular religious practices and non-Christian religions.

Reimer pointed out that Statistics Canada collects considerable quantitative data, but primarily on mainstream Christian religions.

On the other hand, the qualitative studies and in-depth interviews done by scholars tend to focus on members of minority religions. The result is that we don’t know the numbers for minority religions or the quality of mainstream religions.

The data indicates that a large percentage of Canadians claim to be Christians but only sporadically go to church; there is very little research into what these people are actually thinking, said Wilkinson. There is very little information on “how religion is practiced in Canada outside of the organizational forms.”

Similarly, he added, “There seems to be something significant happening with youth and religion in Quebec,” but there is “not much data on how youth think about and practice religion.” Similar things could be said about immigrants and members of minority religions, he said.

Some progress was made in overcoming the secular/sacred divide. Some scholars from mainstream universities gained new appreciation for the fact that an institution such as Trinity Western University is not just a school of theology. The new perception is that a Christian university can be seen as “a legitimate repository of scholars interested in the study of religion,” said  conference co-organizer, historian Bruce Guenther.

The scholars also discussed setting up some kind of ‘clearing house’ or website where scholars from different disciplines can interact with each other and access research being done in Canadian religion, to continue the initiatives of the workshop.

 TWU continues its exploration of these issues with a symposium. ‘Faith Forward: Politics and The Religious Imagination’ takes place March 12–14. Admission is free; seating is limited.

March 2008