The term “post-Christian” is relatively recent; it was first used by professor Mary Daly in 1973. Many academics and commentators use it to describe, often from an anti-Christian perspective, a religious view or a society which has rejected the supernatural claims of the Bible. In such a society, writes Paul Heelas, “Christian stories have lost their strength, and the institutions continue to evaporate in crisis, not knowing how to respond.”
Some observers see the Christian church in Canada disappearing rapidly and Canadian society now morphing into a post-Christian society. Some observers point to the Anglican Church of Canada as an example. Between 1961 and 2001, the Anglican Church lost 53% of its membership, declining from 1.36 million to 642,000. Writer Michael Valpy has humorously conjectured that if the Anglican Church continues to lose 13,000 members each year, then by 2061, there will be one Anglican left in Canada.
Definitions of “Christian Country”
The answer to the question, “Is Canada becoming a post-Christian country?” depends, of course, on how we define “Christian country.” Here are some options:
1. A Christian country is one in which there is an official or unofficial fusion of church and state. In Medieval and Early Modern Europe, such situations were common. John Calvin established such a situation in Geneva in the 1530s. In our day, such an arrangement exists in the Roman Catholic Vatican.
Note that such a fusion of religious and political institutions is found in some contemporary Muslim countries, including Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. That is why, in Pakistan in February 2012, a Pakistani mother was (falsely) charged, under Section 295-C of Pakistan’s Blasphemy Statutes, with “speaking ill of Mohammad,” a crime punishable “by life imprisonment or death.”
2. A Christian country is one in which Christianity is the dominant faith and the government, while separated from the religious structures, ensures that the values of the dominant Christian religion are upheld, at times with coercive force. Examples include early French Canada, most of Roman Catholic Latin America until about 1960, and Italy and Portugal until at least the 1920s.
3. A Christian country is one in which Christianity is the dominant religion and its values are reflected in the laws of the land but the government does not use coercive power to assist religious organizations. Some laws, such as Sunday closing laws and use of the Bible in courts, may incorporate Christian values. Others, such as clergy benefits, assist faith groups. Government does not assist Christian organizations to promote Christian goals but typically grants them freedom to do so as, for example, through the distribution of Gideon New Testaments. This was the case in Canada from about 1840 until about 1982, when the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was enacted.
4. A Christian country is one in which Christianity is the dominant religion but while some government policies may still incorporate certain religious values, these are generally described by governments, the media, and educators in secular terms. The basic government stance is that it is not pro-Christian and that no religion shall be given preferred treatment. Sometimes, in seeking to demonstrate that they are not pro-Christian, governments, media, and educators give preferred treatment to minority, non-Christian religions. This was the case in Canada from about 1982, the year when the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was enacted, until about 2000.
5. A Christian country is one in which Christianity, although mostly in a nominal form, is still the dominant religion, and its principles and ethos still impact society. However, governments, courts, media, and the schools at all levels strive to remove from the public institutions of society anything that is obviously Christian, for example, Christian celebrations of Christmas and Easter. Religion, especially Christianity, is relegated to the margins as strictly a private matter. This has been the situation in Canada since about 2000, although some policies and actions in this direction began already in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. According to this criterion, a country is Christian only because most of its people identify with that faith, whether seriously or only superficially, not because Christian values and practices enjoy public support or endorsement.
It can be argued that over the last 120 years or so, Canada has transitioned in its Christian identity from Definition 3, through Definition 4, to Definition 5.
The Changing Religious Scene in Canada
The following data illustrate the trend of declining Christian commitment.
• In 1900 almost 99% of the population identified with a Christian group; today the figure is about 77%.
• In 1955 nearly 60% of Canadians aged 15 and older attended church at least once a week; by 2006 that number had dropped to 11%.
• Between 1970 and 2009 the Presbyterian Church in Canada lost 36% of its members.
• Between 1970 and 2009 the United Church of Canada lost 20% of its members.
• Between 1988 and 1998 church attendance for Canadians 75 and older declined 7%; for those aged 15-34, it dropped 24%.
• Between 1931 and 2009 religious identification in Canada changed for various groups:
Roman Catholic: 41% to 40.1%
Evangelical: 8% to 11%
Anglican: 16% to 6%
Lutheran: 4% to 2%
No Religion: 1% to 24%
United Church: 20% to 7%
Presbyterian: 8% to 2%
Other faiths: 3% to 8%
• Between 1991 and 2001 the smaller “other” religions increased as follows:
Islam: 253,300 to 579,600 (229% increase)
Sikhism: 147,301 to 278,400 (89% increase)
Hinduism: 157,249 to 297,200 (89% increase)
Buddhism: 163, 206 to 300,300 (84% increase)
It is significant that the large decline in mainline Protestant attendance was matched by increases in evangelical attendance. In February 2008, ChristianWeek reported that “More than 1.1 million people attend evangelical churches each week, many more than the 750,000 who attend mainline churches. This is a startling reversal of attendance patterns which prevailed in earlier generations. A single evangelical denomination, the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, now has attendance almost as large as each of the three big ‘mainline’ Protestant churches.” According to a 2003 Ipsos Reid national poll, “Twelve percent of Canadians call themselves evangelicals.” Reginald Bibby reports that in 1950 Canada had 1.1 million evangelical Protestants; by 2000 that figure had reached 2.5 million.
In spite of evangelical growth, in terms of total church affiliation, Canada is much less a Christian country than it used to be. This numerical decline is matched by what could be called a dilution of theology for mainline Protestant denominations and the population generally. An Ipsos Reid poll found that between 2000 and 2009, the number of Canadians who believe in God dropped by 13%. In 2009 only 20% believed in an afterlife, and only 20% believed in a literal heaven and hell.
Professor D.C. Masters has made some important observations about the shift in religious beliefs and practices. Despite some differences, in earlier times “the Christian churches in Canada shared a common body of belief. All believed that man was a sinner, bound for hell, unable to rescue himself, in need of a redeemer, but capable of salvation if he would avail himself of the divine sacrifice on his behalf. All accepted the authority of the Bible, which all believed to be divinely inspired. All regarded the achievement of eternal life as the dominant aim of the Christian. His own material, earthly comfort, while pleasant, was of secondary importance.”
Today most members of Canada’s mainline churches no longer hold these views. We find, instead, “a growing scepticism in regard to the supernatural aspects of Christianity.” Gradually, mainline denominations and seminaries developed leaders “who got much further from orthodox Christianity and to whom one may give the term post-Christian liberals.” The general erosion of Christian orthodoxy among Canadian mainline denominations has profoundly reduced the impact of those denominations on Canada and has played a major role in reshaping Canada as a post-Christian country.
The Changing Canadian Society
Data suggest that for most Canadians, scientism, humanism, and narcissism (“excessive or erotic interest in oneself”) have become the highest good. These have replaced spiritual concerns, awareness of God, generosity, volunteerism, and life as preparation for eternity as the highest values.
The climate of modernity rejects moral absolutes, optimism, hope, the importance of community, and traditional family values. In their place, most of Canadian society now embraces moral relativism, uncertainty, individualism, personal relationships, distrust of institutions (especially the organized church), and the marginalization, if not irrelevance, of a coherent world view.
Johan T. Tangelder’s observations are worth noting: “The notion of normative truth, good and evil, universal absolute norms for morality are no longer foundational in Canada.” While in the past moral legislation prohibited or restricted prostitution, pornography, sexual vice, gambling, and the recreational use of drugs, in recent times this kind of legislation has come under severe attack.” Moral judgment is rejected as “judgementalism.” Tangelder wonders whether Canadian society will reach the point where “murder between consenting adults ‘in private’ is permitted.”
Professor Will Kymlika of Carleton University presses the issue rather far when he asserts that “the right many ‘religious’ parents claim to have – to educate their children in their particular religious doctrine – is neither morally defensible nor should it be upheld by the state.” In his view, the government’s role in education should trump the parental role.
As Canada becomes increasingly post-Christian, a key consequence tends to be overlooked, namely, that society itself may be the biggest loser. Christian ethics have played a crucial role in shaping Canadian society. As this permeating presence dissipates, we can anticipate greater challenges for government and a general deterioration in quality of life.
Key Milestones for Canada Becoming a Post-Christian Country
Major government policies, court cases, and other events illustrate the shift to post-Christianity:
• On January 28, 1988, Canada’s Supreme Court struck down Canada’s abortion law. Canada is now the only Western country which has no abortion law.
• In 1995, mayor Dianne Haskett of London, Ontario, decided not to proclaim “Gay Pride” week. She had to pay $10,000 to the complaining homosexuals. She won the next election with a landslide.
• In 1996, Scott Brockie, a Toronto Christian printer, was fined $5,000 for refusing to print a letterhead for a gay and lesbian association. His legal costs were $100,000.
• At a 1998 memorial service for victims of the Swissair plane crash near Peggy’s Cove in Nova Scotia, United Church minister Carolyn Nicholson was told by the Chretien government that she could not use Christian Scripture nor mention the name of Jesus. Jewish and Muslim leaders quoted freely from their Scriptures.
• In 2001 the British Columbia College of Teachers took Trinity Western University to the Supreme Court of Canada, arguing that, because of its Christian stance, it should not be allowed to train public school teachers. The College of Teachers lost. In 2009 the Canadian Association of University Teachers harassed Trinity Western University for requiring its faculty to sign a statement of faith.
• In 2002 Chris Kempling, a Christian in Quesnel, B.C., was suspended from his job as a public school teacher for writing a private citizen’s letter to a newspaper opposing same-sex marriage.
• In 2004 the Paul Martin government amended Canada’s hate crime law so that saying anything that could be construed as hatred of people who are homosexual was a hate crime.
• In 2006 professor David Mullen of Cape Breton University was fined $2,100 for telling a student in class that in his opinion “homosexuality is an unnatural lifestyle.”
• In 2006, McGill University’s world renowned Christian ethicist, Dr. Margaret Somerville, was booed and shouted down for her opposition to same-sex marriage while Ryerson University awarded her an honorary doctorate.
• In 2008 the Ontario-based evangelical ministry Christian Horizons was told that it could not release an employee of a care home who had signed a statement to abide by Christian moral standards but later said she was a practising lesbian.
• On January 10, 2011, the Saskatchewan Appeal Court ruled that marriage commissioners must perform same-sex marriages even if this violates their conscience.
How Should the Church Respond?
An initial response might be that Canadian Christians should try to understand why de-Christianization is proceeding, perhaps even accelerating, in Canada. As I see it, two reasons are basic. First, much of the church, broadly speaking, has lost its distinctive “saltiness.” Second, much of the country, particularly certain segments of the political, educational, media, judicial, and entertainment elites, have become so blinded by their anti-Christian biases that they do not realize that they are actually working against their own best interests.
Christians have come to hold various views about how to respond to the changing religious scene. One view holds that the Christian church must adapt, not only in methods but also in doctrinal content: Don’t teach what moderns don’t want to hear; entertain them; motivate them; make them happy; provide social activities. But, as Michael Valpy puts it, organizing “bazaars, rummage sales, ladies teas, and church dances … isn’t going to help much” because the real problem is that mainline Christianity in Canada “has no good news to tell: it has been purged by increasingly liberal and unbelieving clergy.”
A second view holds that the true church must maintain its orthodoxy by looking to the past: Hold true to what has been proven to be true. Numbers are not important. The church must not cease to be the true church. The church’s golden age lies in the past; the past must remain the model. The decline of Christian impact is simply a reality that must be accepted.
A third view holds that the secularization of society, the fading of nominal Christianity, presents the true Christian church with a great opportunity. Given that in the public perception the Christian church no longer functions in a “legitimating” role, it is now free to take up its biblical “prophetic” role. It is now free to be the truly separated church of which our Lord speaks in 2 Corinthians 6:17.
It can be said that the new Canadian reality is forcing the true Christian church to be what it should have been all along – the truly separated “body of Christ” which can successfully minister to society only if it is fundamentally different from society.
Bryan Hagerman writes: “Western culture is rapidly becoming Post-Christian. As a result the church faces her greatest missional opportunity in centuries.” Therefore, he suggests that Christians should praise God for this new reality.
The secularization of society, in some ways very sad, presents itself as a God-given opportunity for his church. The increasingly post-Christian nature of Canada challenges the faithful church of Jesus Christ to take even more seriously our Lord’s declaration and unqualified commission: “You are the salt of the earth.” (Matthew 5:13)
John H. Redekop is a retired political science professor, who has taught at Wilfrid Laurier University and Trinity Western University.