By Helen Smith
The Canadian census mandatory long-form has, for many years, been an important guide for the government in Canada to understanding the extent of religious belief in the country. The census results are used to assist government in providing social and cultural resources to the population according to greatest need and demographics. Secular humanists, however, have long wondered if the wording on the census was too favorable towards religion and has skewed the results by giving the wrong impression about religious belief in the country.
The British Columbia Humanist Association (BCHA) set out to inquire further into this subject by hiring Insights West, a survey company, to conduct 800 on-line interviews between May 31 and June 3, 2016. The BCHA hoped to find out more detail about people’s religious beliefs, and also their religious practice. The results were quite marked. While 56% of respondents replied that they believed in the existence of a higher power (26% did not believe and 18% were unsure), when the same people were asked in a separate question if they actually practiced a particular religion or faith, 69% responded that they did not. When asked for more detail in yet another question on whether they ever attended religious services at a church, temple, mosque, or synagogue, 55% indicated that they never attended, 23% indicated that they only attended on holidays or for special events, 4% attended once or twice a month, 5% only several times a year, and only 11% attended once a week or more. The results indicate that religious observance, through attendance at a religious institution, is low regardless of whether people profess to believe in a higher power or not.
The survey company then asked whether respondents supported charitable status for religious groups to which 60% agreed with the granting of such status. However, when this question was broken down into separate questions about specific government subsidies (tax exemptions and income tax credits) for houses of worship, parking lots, and clergy residences, respondent support dropped significantly with 51%, 68%, and 58% opposed, respectively. The support for subsidy to institutions such as religious hospitals also dropped significantly if these institutions were seen to discriminate in human resource decisions against a job candidate or employee based on the person’s religious beliefs (56% strongly opposed and 19% somewhat opposed) and support for government subsidized religious hospitals significantly dropped if they refused to provide specific services to the public such as abortions or doctor-assisted dying (52% strongly opposed and 19% somewhat opposed).
Ian Bushfield, the executive director of the BCHA remarked that “Religion is on the wane in BC. In its place is an increasingly secular and non-religious constituency that politicians and policy makers will need to pay attention to … As B.C. becomes increasingly irreligious, it is up to religious groups to justify the entitlements they continue to enjoy at taxpayer’s expense. There’s no reason many of their services couldn’t be provided by secular and inclusive alternatives. The state doesn’t need to continue to privilege religious world views over secular ones.”