Census data shows B.C. is the most secular province in Canada

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Every 10 years, Statistics Canada asks Canadians whether they belong to a religious organization or group. And every 10 years, more and more people in British Columbia say no.

According to the 2021 population census, 34.6 per cent of people in Canada claimed no religious affiliation, while in B.C. that number jumped to 52.4 per cent — the highest it’s ever been.

Ian Bushfield, executive director of the British Columbia Humanist Association, says his organization is “thrilled.”

“It’s monumental to see this threshold crossed of a majority non-religious in B.C.,” Bushfield said in an interview.

“One of the things that’s really fascinating is that we are seeing a new generation of people whose parents are non-religious and maybe even their grandparents are non-religious,” he continued. “These kids … they’re just growing up secular.”

Bushfield says B.C. has always been “a bit of a different place” where newcomers are often looking to start over, and in many cases leave things like religion behind.

Ian Bushfield, head of the B.C. Humanist Association, says his organization is ‘thrilled’ to see that over half of British Columbians reported no affiliation to a religion in the 2021 census. (Sohrab Sandhu/CBC)

He says people on the west coast also tend to be big believers in science, which he says was evidenced by the adherence to public health measures during the pandemic and high uptake of COVID-19 vaccines.

Bushfield says the province is also very diverse. While the number of people associating with Christian faiths continues to decline, there are a growing number of people affiliated with faiths such as Sikhism, Hinduism and Islam.

The Al Masjid Al Jamia mosque in Vancouver is pictured on the first day of Ramadan. Ian Bushfield, head of the B.C. Humanist Association, says B.C. is very diverse, with a growing number of people affiliated with faiths including Islam. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

“And in that way, secularism is very important,” he said.

“As it’s a way to represent the neutrality where everyone can feel welcome and included.”

Religious leaders have different perspectives

Reverend Carmen Lansdowne, the moderator of the United Church of Canada, says B.C. has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to secularisation — across all religious traditions.

As the first Indigenous leader of a religious denomination in Canada, Lansdowne feels the shift away from organized religion can be explained at least in part by negative historical actions.

Reverend Dr. Carmen Lansdowne is the moderator for the United Church and the first Indigenous leader of a religious denomination in Canada. She says part of a shift away from Christianity can be attributed to the historical harm caused by the church. (Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC)

“We see that in Canada through the legacy of residential schools, and the ways that the state and Christianity paired together to perpetuate cultural genocide against Indigenous people,” she said.

“I think people moving away from religious traditions has not so much to do with their spirituality or their faith, but has to do with the rejection of harms caused by religious tradition.”

Members of the Squamish First Nation hold a ceremony in remembrance of the 215 children discovered at the former Kamloops Residential School, outside St. Paul’s Church on the Squamish Mission Reserve in North Vancouver, B.C., in May 2021. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Father Douglas Fenton, executive archdeacon of the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster, has a different take.

He says when he asks people if they pray, have conversations with colleagues about faith or belief in god, many respond affirmatively.

“When we talk about who’s religious and who’s not, we are often measuring attendance at a place: a church or a mosque or a temple,” he said. “And not talking about the relationship that faith plays in an individual’s life.”

Father Douglas Fenton is the executive archdeacon of the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster. He says while membership may be down, Christian churches are still very involved in British Columbia’s communities. (Sohrab Sandhu/CBC)

Still, Fenton admits that Christian churches have been seeing a decline in membership in B.C. for years, and he says there are a number of theories from sociologists as to why — one being that church no longer plays the same social role it did in earlier times, and another pointing to the increased consumption of television and social connectivity through the internet and social media.

Beyond the lure of TV and computer screens, he says people in B.C. tend to be very active and might not have time for church services.

“In this part of the country, people’s lives are lived outside,” he said.

Fenton says faith communities in B.C. are still very engaged in important issues like housing, homelessness, reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and climate change, while offering important services such as shelters and food banks.

“The church’s role here is no less diminished than it is anywhere else, and that’s why I think those numbers sometimes play a different role than they should.”



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