More Canadians than ever have no religious affiliation, census finds

Canadians are losing their religion at an unprecedented rate, with more than a third of the country reporting no religious affiliation in the last census, Statistics Canada revealed on Wednesday.

And although the latest slice of 2021 census data shows the proportion of non-religious Canadians has more than doubled in the past 20 years – to 34.6%, from 16.5% in 2001 – the country’s share who identifies as Christian has shrunk.

They represented 53.3% of the population in 2021, compared to 67.3% in 2011 and 77.1% in 2001.

“It’s fair to say that the two things we’re seeing — the growth in the non-religious population, as well as the decline in the number of people reporting Christian denominations — are related,” said Jarod Dobson, senior analyst at StatCan. Diversity and Sociocultural Statistics Division.

The trend in Canada is consistent with that in the United States, the agency noted.

“There are studies that have been done that show that over time the importance of religion in people’s lives has diminished,” Dobson said.

Some seek a sense of community elsewhere

For Toronto’s Tania Akon, giving up her Muslim faith meant losing not only her guiding philosophy, but also her community.

“If you leave your community in a place like Toronto, you’re just a worker,” she said. “You try to find that meaning and that connection and that humanity (at work) – but that’s not a guarantee.”

In search of this connection, Akon turned to secular humanism, a philosophy-community centered on human dignity. Some 11,390 people described themselves as humanists in the last census.

The non-religious category includes people who identify as atheists and agnostics, as well as humanists and those with other secular perspectives.

Akon attended her first Toronto Oasis secular community meeting in 2017 and has since become one of its volunteer organizers.

Until the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, they met weekly at an interfaith center, hosting speakers and musicians.

“Every Sunday morning, so it’s like a church except there’s no dogma, no doctrine,” Akon said.

They migrated to virtual meetings when the pandemic started and haven’t returned since.

Even so, she says, the sense of community persists.

“We are filling a need,” she said. “It’s organized by people like me who have the need themselves and have tried to create something to meet a need that we have.”

Men participate in prayers during Eid al-Adha celebrations in Kitchener, Ontario in 2020. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

People rally around “things that matter” to them

But not all non-religious people seek community based on their philosophy, said Lori Beaman, a University of Ottawa professor and Canada Research Chair in Religious Diversity and Social Change.

“We see a kind of openness to coming together around things that matter to people, like homelessness, like food banks, like conservation, etc.,” she said. “So I think those are the ways people are finding community in new ways.”

While in some cases these communities are online, Beaman noted that people also form a community around in-person activities. Book clubs, knitting groups, and sports teams are all secular communities.

“Very often what tends to happen is that there’s a characterization of non-religious people as somehow having an emptiness or a desire. And I think maybe we want to put that in brackets and ask instead, simply, what are the things people are interested in?” Beaman said.

A person is seated with their back to the camera facing a minister who speaks on a podium.
A parishioner attends a service at an Anglican church in Kashechewan First Nation as Chief Leo Friday leads the congregation in prayer. Friday is an Anglican priest from the Cree community of Ontario’s James Bay coast. (Erik White/CBC)

Generational differences

Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme, associate professor of sociology at the University of Waterloo, said the abandonment of religion is largely generational.

According to census data, only 19% of Canadians aged 65 and over reported having no religion, compared to 36.5% of those aged 15 to 64 and 42.5% of those aged 14 and over. less.

Wilkins-Laflamme said many baby boomers have stopped attending church services regularly, but still identify with a religious tradition.

“Then because they themselves had children and were raising them, those children weren’t necessarily attending activities with religious groups with their parents,” she said.

“So when it was their turn to become adults, they didn’t really see the need or the point of retaining their religious identity or affiliation if they didn’t have any practices related to it.”

Ganpat Lodha, left, celebrates Diwali with his family in Winnipeg on Nov. 4, 2021. The census shows 2.3% of the population now identify as Hindu, up from 1% in 2001. (Prabhjot Singh Lotey/CBC)

The most comprehensive portrait of religious affiliations to date

Even as the proportion of non-religious people increases, some non-Christian religions are growing, mainly due to immigration.

Islam is the second most commonly reported religion in Canada in 2021, with nearly 5% of the population identifying as Muslim. This has more than doubled since 2001, when the share was only 2%.

Meanwhile, 2.3% of the population now identifies as Hindu, up from 1% in 2001.

Those who are affiliated with a particular religion are not necessarily practicing members of that religion, Statistics Canada noted.

The agency said this year’s publication presents the most comprehensive portrait of Canadians’ religious affiliations to date, as the census is linked to a list of 200 examples of denominations to consult before writing in their religion, which which encourages people to be more specific.

For example, 1,645 people said they were Druidic in the 2021 census, while 4,475 said they were neopagan. In past surveys, they would have been identified only as pagans.

The Pagan umbrella, which also includes 12,625 Wiccans, now encompasses 45,325.

James C. Tibbs