Jim Taylor's Columns - 'Soft Edges' and 'Sharp Edges'

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Published on Thursday, February 6, 2020

The rise of the un-religious

Bad news for religious institutions – churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, and gurdwaras – the agnostics are winning. 

            The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, a conservative Christian organization, recently completed a poll of Canadians over the age of 18. In summary, they found that “half of Canadians are either agnostic, atheist or unreligious. And only a tenth attend religious services weekly.”

            Like all polls, it’s a sampling of opinions and experiences. It put its questions to 5,000 Canadians, regardless of their brand of religion. So it’s not just about evangelicals. 

            The poll asked, in essence, “Do you have a religion?” And if you do, “Do you participate?”

            Beyond that, the poll tracked changes in religious affiliation. So it asked about religious participation at the age of 12, compared to religious participation now. 

            Disclosure: I’m relying heavily on an article by Rick Hiemstra, director of research for the Evangelical Fellowship, for my data. 


Religious minority

            The single biggest finding is that 50% of Canadians no longer claim any religious affiliation. They consider themselves agnostics, atheists, or “spiritual but not religious” (abbreviated to AASN).

            Those who still consider themselves Christian – Catholic, Protestant, Pentecostal, whatever – make up only 43% of the Canadian population.

            You might have guessed that, just looking around your religious gatherings. 

            The significant finding, though, is the change in attitude towards religion. The poll asked what respondents remembered about religious participation when they were 12 years old. “We chose age 12,” Hiemstra explained, “because that’s just before many parents give up trying to get their kids to attend on Sunday.”

            Among my generation, 83% considered themselves Christian at the age of 12, and 62% would have attended weekly. Today only 19% attend weekly. That’s the huge loss.

            Declining attendance can’t be blamed on the younger generation, the poll found. At age 12, only 22% of millennials felt they had any Christian affiliation; only 9% now attend weekly. By comparison, that’s a tiny loss.  

             “The biggest declines in weekly attendance are not found among younger generations, but in the Silent Generation [born 1925-1945] and Boomers [1946-1964],” Hiemstra finds.

            Among those who used to attend regularly, half never attend now, and 77% attend less often. Much less often:  “The new normal is not having attended a single religious service in the last 12 months.”


No exceptions

            Don’t cite anecdotes about booming U.S. megachurches. Their own figures show that they rise, and they crash, when a superstar leader dies, retires, or proves to have clay feet.

            And don’t protest that congregations in Texas or Arizona still have packed pews and booming Sunday schools. They’re also declining. They just lag 40 years behind the Canadian experience, 70 years behind the U.K. and Europe. 

            Hiemstra tried to reflect on the implications of declining interest. “Do we simply decide who will turn out the lights in a few decades and continue the same until then?” he asks. 

            It’s not about “re-inventing church,” Hiemstra suggests. It’s not just that people are busy doing other things and need new experiences to attract them back to communities of faith. 

            It’s about priorities. For more and more people, religion – any kind of religion – falls well below iPhones and soccer practices on their “must-do” scale.

            It’s not that people are actively opposed to religion. They simply don’t care anymore. 


Copyright © 2020 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.

                  To comment on this column, write jimt@quixotic.ca





“Brace yourself for the onslaughts,” Ted Spencer wrote after reading last week’s column. ”There will surely be two kinds: the soul fanciers and the rest of us, and their reactions will be as different as Democrats and Republicans. Or Liberals and Conservatives.

            “I’m United Church of Canada, through and through, but have yet to hear a convincing argument why I should rejoice in the thought of an afterlife. I daresay ‘afterlife’ was a handy carrot that organized religions dangled in front of their adherents to keep them subdued while they were exploited: “Your life here sucks, but if you follow our rules, things will get really sweet next go around." 

            “The soul thing doesn’t work for me and, while we’re at it, I’m probably an atheist as well. It’s a big tent that we’re under, and being half decent to the next guy under -- or outside -- the tent is about all I can manage. 


Even my newspaper editor got involved. Barry Gerding wrote, “As I get older, now 59, I find myself more curious about this life and death thing because the reality is staring me in the face. Should I feel overwhelmingly sad about someone passing or should that be tempered by celebrating what they achieved in their life? And if there is something there to celebrate, why do we wait until someone is dead to have that celebration?

            “I find it interesting that people who have died and been brought back, particularly those who have been in a coma for days, weeks, years, can’t provide any concrete answers to the whole after-life question, beyond the seeing a bright light thing.”


John Shaffer offered a caution: “When I conduct funeral services, I am very careful about what I affirm [about life after death], for we just do not know. Unfortunately, friends and relatives are not reluctant to affirm their own convictions and affirm that Uncle Ted is enjoying a good game of golf in heaven. What value is there in ‘raining on their convictions’? Would I have gotten in deep trouble if I told them: ‘There isn't any golf or football or basketball or soccer in heaven’?”


Isabel Gibson: “I've had the same confused thoughts about my existence, or lack thereof. Early in my father's career in oil exploration, my parents were almost sent to Chile. Then Lacombe #1 came in and everything changed. I went through a period of regretting that I never got the chance to grow up in an exotic place and become Spanish/English bilingual. But of course, all their family-making would have been affected by such a move, so *I* wouldn't be here; I wouldn't be at all.

            “As for life after death, I figure it's even less helpful to ponder it. That doesn't always stop me from thinking about it, usually when someone I love is close to death.”


James Russell endorsed my skepticism: “This is exactly my thought. We live once. We die. If our lives are to have any meaning, it must be in that context.

            “But… We are elements in life, and in particular elements in human life -- which is a both an evolved and evolving state of being. And humans in particular are social. Not just in that we like to hang out together, but in that we have no life without the society of other human beings. No history, no language, no science, no love, no laughter, no art … Our meaning is not just our individual lives but the life we make together and which we share with other beings. [So] we are not immortal but ‘we’ outlive ourselves. And therefore need to think and care about the future and the other.”


I had wondered how a soul would think, if we need our whole bodies to think. Marg Tribe answered, “I do not believe that our immortal souls think anything at all. They only love.”


Bob Rollwagen suggested,  “Forget the math -- the concept of conception creating evolving life boggles the mind. If there is a Creator, they are still working on the final product. We are getting taller, stronger and more intelligent.

            “As for the United Church Creed, I see life after death meaning how you are remembered and how those memories influence ongoing life for the living.

            “Can you imagine having lost all memory from Alzheimer’s and existing in this fashion in another space with the billion that have gone before? This also boggles the mind.”


Tom Watson: “Somebody -- and I don't know who it was or from where I got it -- said that with every new birth the human race begins all over again. That certainly doesn't point to the pre-existence of particular souls that become embodied.”


Fran Ota focussed on my reference to reincarnation: “As I understand Buddhist teaching, the soul has the option to go on to the ‘Great Ocean’ or to choose to return (the bodhisattva way) to help other sentient beings become enlightened. I took the Kalachakra (Wheel of Life) training with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and took that vow -- To live for the benefit of all sentient beings. In reincarnation, a person is not born with all the fully formed memories from the life before, but some memories are clear enough that those people can be identified.

            “My sister, a cranio-sacral therapist, once worked on a young boy, about eight years old, who was considered to be mentally ill. He spoke a language no one could identify, until a doctor from Tibet (acupuncturist) was brought in.....they discovered the boy was speaking a very ancient Tibetan dialect. He learned some English, but it was clearly not his mother tongue, and he became more and more of a behavioral problem. He was entirely confused as to why he was with that family. The Buddhists and the doctor felt he was the wrong soul in the wrong body. and were able to help him adjust.”


I had written,  “Naturally, if I don’t believe that my immortal soul existed before birth, I have difficulty believing that my immortal soul will continue existing after death.”

            Steve Roney replied, “That looks to me like a non sequitur. Neither Christians nor Greek pagans believe that souls exist before conception; both believe souls are immortal. Why do you think pre-existence is necessary to life after death? Why is it a difficulty for you, when it is not for other Christians? Something seems obvious to you here that isn’t to me.”

            Elsewhere, I had paraphrased Descartes’ famous aphorism, “I think, therefore I am,” as “I am a body, therefore I can think.”
            Steve replied, “The moon is a body. Can the moon think? I don’t get you here.”


Paul McLenaghan thought his experience of disembodied soul might be relevant: “When I was 12, I had one of those ‘out-of-body’ experiences. My older brother had died of pneumonia. I was devastated. I was lying on the couch, sobbing. Then, suddenly I was looking down at my body from somewhere near the ceiling. It seemed to last for only a few moments, but I have no idea how long that might have been. I knew what I had experienced, but had no reference to understand it. From that experience, I seemed to sense that I/we are more than just physical beings.

            “I told no one about it until 15 to 16 years later when the topic came up in a class at Queen's Theological College. I learned that others have had similar experiences. The Apostle Paul makes reference to somewhat similar experiences.”


Don Sandin wrote, “I have not -- in the past several years -- had any problem with the idea of pre-existence or post-existence of the soul. I certainly pondered on what happens to us and others at the level of the ‘in-between’ existence. I recently came upon the book, Journey of Souls by Michael Newton, about people being interviewed while under deep hypnosis about their between-lives existence. I have given this book to several people because I found it so relevant and helpful. However, I think that if we don’t appreciate this earthly existence fully and love ourselves and others we have really missed the point of it all. This is a wonderful ‘trip.’ I am excited about the experience of the ‘last breath’ -- whenever that occurs.”


There were a couple of comments in general. Dave Denholm write, “A special thanks for this one.”

            And Steve Enerson wrote,: “I appreciate your thinking, perhaps because some of your thoughts are similar to some of mine. But even where we are dissimilar, I appreciate your thinking, and expressing.”






Somehow, Psalm 112 makes me think of Shakespeare’s line: “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood….”


1          Those who trust God's wisdom,
who are willing to learn God's ways,
will never be ground down by the troubles they encounter.

2          People will speak of their children with pride;
they will receive respect from all. 

3          Their influence will extend far beyond their own circles.
4          In trials and tribulations, God will give them help --
but not before they require it,
or they might start to rely on themselves.

5          In return, God expects them to share their skills and talents generously,
to treat everyone fairly,
to lighten the loads of sufferers. 

6          Because they know who and what they are,
their heads are not turned by every trend and fad. 

7          They are not broken by bad news. 

8          Misfortune does not destroy them,
for they weigh their worth upon other scales. 

9          Whatever they have, they use for the common good;
When they die, they are remembered with gratitude. 


For paraphrases of most of the psalms used by the Revised Common Lectionary, you can order my book Everyday Psalmsfrom Wood Lake Publishing, info@woodlake.com.





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                  Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca He’s also relatively inexpensive!

                  I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom. She also has lots of beautiful photos. Especially of birds.

                  Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom (NB that’s “watso” not “watson”)



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