Is Atheism on the Rise in Canada?
Statistics appear to show the number of Canadians who proclaim no religious affiliation, including atheism, may have increased during the last two decades.
The last two decades have brought gradual transformations to Canada’s religious landscape. Data tables from Statistics Canada appear to show that the number of Canadians who are irreligious, including adherents of atheism and humanism, may have increased during this period. Is atheism on the rise, as some sources in Canada purport? Comprehending the answer to that question requires a wider examination of recent shifts in religious beliefs within our country.
Counting Canada’s Atheist Population
As a 2013 Huffington Post article revealed, around 7.8 million Canadians disclosed on the 2011 National Household Survey (NHS) that they claimed no religious affiliation. That’s almost 24 percent of Canada’s population, and a significant increase from the 16.5 percent that claimed no religious affiliation in the 2001 survey. Notably, the NHS groups several belief systems under the “no religious affiliation” umbrella, including atheism, humanism and agnosticism, along with those who simply answered “no religion.”
Atheism on its own totaled almost 48,700 adherents, or nearly 0.15 percent of all Canadians surveyed for the 2011 version. According to Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, around 18,600 declared themselves to be atheists on the 2001 edition and over 13,500 responded the same way on the 1991 survey. That would suggest a slow, steady increase over the last two decades, with their numbers more than doubling since 2001.
Are There Problems With the Numbers?
On the other hand, data from the 2011 National Household Survey has been scrutinized and criticized due to a lower-than-expected response rate. As CityLab contributor Aarian Marshall pointed out in a 2015 article, policy changes enacted in 2010 meant that response to the NHS became voluntary instead of mandatory. Only 69 percent of respondents sent back their long-form surveys, raising some serious questions about data precision in the 2011 edition as well as possibly the 2016 version. Moreover, concerns remain about accurate counts for underserved populations such as those living in poverty, immigrants, First Nations communities and people of color.
In the face of these possible trends and worries, questions arise concerning what the 2011 NHS numbers really mean. Meanwhile, the 2016 NHS’s census profile has been released on the Statistics Canada website, but the current data does not include information regarding respondents’ religious affiliation.
Understanding the Bigger Picture
With the absence of reliable numbers, journalists, theologians and scholars rely on other data sources and anecdotal testimonies to understand the larger picture of religion in Canada. A March 2015 Angus Reid Institute report revealed several key developments:
- An increase in the number of Canadians “inclined to reject religion”
- Dwindling numbers of those who “embraced religion”
- A sizable group of respondents who said they were “in between”
Nevertheless, these figures only tell part of the story. A 2015 CBC article explained that traditional Protestant Christian congregations are losing members while Catholic and evangelical churches, along with Muslim mosques and Sikh temples, are experiencing increases. Although misgivings remain about the 2011 NHS data, these observations are supported by its finding of sharp upswings in Sikh and Muslim populations between 2001 and 2011. Simultaneously, more Canadians may also be embracing Neopagan paths, African orisha-based religions or the First Nations spiritual practices of their ancestors, but it’s difficult to make any concrete guesses without solid data.
Faith in Canada: A Complex Picture
While there are serious doubts about the accuracy of NHS data on Canadian religious affiliations, some general observations can be derived from multiple sources. Atheism, humanism and agnosticism adherents in Canada may have grown within the last 20 years, but the overall picture of faith in our country is more multifaceted. With immigration causing shifts in membership and more people adopting non-Abrahamic spiritual paths, it’s important to remember that there are larger, more complex stories behind the data and headlines.
Stand Up and Be Counted: Numbering Canada’s Pagan Population
As issues of political representation and religious freedom remain salient, some pagan Canadians grapple with how to be counted and recognized.
How many Neopagans make up the Canadian population? That’s a hard question to answer. Even worldwide, the pagan community is hard to estimate due to a wide variety of factors, so estimates often come from third-party sources. As issues of political representation and religious freedom remain salient, some Canadian pagans grapple with how to advance the positive recognition of their faith.
A Minority in Many Nations
In most Western countries, Neopagans usually make up less than 1 percent of the population. Organizations such as the Pew Research Center in the United States have attempted to assess these numbers. Yet according to Religious Tolerance, even Pew has not been consistent in its analysis and classification of adherents to modern forms of paganism. Around 0.4 percent of respondents answered “Pagan” or “Wiccan” on Pew’s 2008 Religious Landscape survey, yet Pew classified some of these same responses under the “New Age” category in other years. Pew’s own 2010 estimates stated that 0.8 percent of the world’s population belonged to “other religions,” but it includes faiths such as Zoroastrianism, Sikhism and Jainism alongside various pagan paths such as Wicca, Kemetic paganism and Norse Heathenry.
The Impact of the “Broom Closet”
Depending on where they live, many pagans contend with outright persecution. Some individuals keep their chosen faiths quiet among family, coworkers and acquaintances to avoid discrimination and harassment. In a 2015 Vice article, contributor Leonie Roderick cited examples of the prejudicial actions that practitioners of Witchcraft and other pagan paths face. For example, an English witch named Charlie Mallory Cawley documented years of bullying and abuse both in her workplaces and at school. Her tribulations included accusations of animal sacrifice and being cornered in a women’s restroom and called names.
Problems With the National Household Survey
Statistics Canada incorporated several religious categories for respondents to select in its 2011 National Household Survey. However, a 2013 HuffPost Canada article reveals much of the criticism expressed about the instrument, namely its low response rates among marginalized populations such as the poor, immigrants and indigenous First Nations communities. The 2011 survey listed the following classifications for religious faiths:
- Roman Catholicism
- Other Christian
- Other religions
The Pagan Business Network also mentioned the lack of options for Neopagan respondents in a 2016 blog post. Nevertheless, one possible factor influencing lack of recognition may be the vast range of spiritual paths existing under the banner of Neopaganism. For instance, the Canadian chapter of the Pagan Federation International mentions many different iterations on its website, such as Wicca, Druidry, Heathenry and Shamanism.
Furthermore, PBN writer Mark J. Newby opined that “the Canadian Government is at a loss about how to recognize religions that do not have a centralized, hierarchical structure.” At the same time, he pointed to a recent chaplaincy guide available from Canada’s governmental publications as an example. While it offers an extensive amount of information about Wicca, Newby mentions that Wicca is the only Neopagan faith in the guide and that it seems to consider the Wiccan Church of Canada as a central authoritative body. As pagans themselves can attest, many contemporary Neopagan spiritual movements do not have centralized hierarchies.
What Does the Future Hold?
Pagan participation in politics and other aspects of Canada’s public life is increasing, as evidenced by growing membership in pagan organizations and the growing number of chaplains at higher educational institutions. However, a variety of factors still contribute to the difficulty in determining how many people follow Neopagan spiritual traditions in our country. With the eclectic nature of modern pagan movements and social stigmas that keep their practitioners “in the broom closet,” the future of pagan social and political representation remains to be seen.