Religion | The Canadian Encyclopedia



​Religion (from the Latin, religio, "respect for what is sacred") may be defined as the relationship between human beings and their transcendent source of value.

Religion (from the Latin, religio, "respect for what is sacred") may be defined as the relationship between human beings and their transcendent source of value. In practice it may involve various forms of communication with a higher power, such as prayers, rituals at critical stages in life, meditation or "possession" by spiritual agencies. Religions, though differing greatly, usually share most of the following characteristics: a sense of the holy or the sacred (often manifested in the form of gods, or a personal god); a system of beliefs; a community of believers or participants; ritual (which may include standard forms of invocation, sacraments or rites of initiation); and a moral code.

Religious Traditions

In Canada the principal religion is Christianity. In the 1971 census, almost 90 per cent of the population identified as Christian. By the 2021 census, this percentage had dropped to 53.3 per cent. Meanwhile, 4.9 per cent of Canadians identified with Islam and 2.3 per cent were Hindus.

Whereas in 1971, only around 5 per cent of Canadians were unaffiliated with any religion, by 2021 that number had risen to 34.6 per cent.

Before European settlement, Indigenous peoples practised a wide variety of religions (see Religion and Spirituality of Indigenous Peoples in Canada). Some Indigenous people converted to Christianity through missionary work, but Christianity was also imposed in many cases. (See also Residential Schools in Canada.) In recent years there has been a revival of Indigenous religions.

Major Religious Denominations

During the 19th century, and boosted particularly by 20th-century immigration, the variety of religions in Canada has grown. By the 1980s Judaism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Islam, Chinese religions and the Baha'i faith were well represented. As of 2011, 8.8 per cent of Canadians adhered to religious faiths other than Christianity. The missionary legacy has included the translation of the Bible into many languages and dialects, including several Indigenous languages. Missionary efforts also reflected colonial European policies toward many Indigenous religious rites — such as dances and the potlatch — and undermined self-respect and self-sufficiency among Indigenous communities.

Today, pluralism of religious belief is common in Canada. The various traditions can be contrasted according to their sense of the sacred based on historic events (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism and the Baha'i faith) or on the natural cycle and rhythms of life (Hinduism, Taoism,to some extent, Buddhism and Indigenous religious beliefs), but such contrasts can overlook the similarities across these traditions.

In the academic study of religion, Christian usages and definitions of the descriptive vocabulary of religious studies tended to dominate discussions of the subject, as did Christian views of what constitutes religion. In North America this tendency has been influenced most strongly by Protestant Christianity. The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century marked a reaction against priestly religion by scholars such as Martin Luther (see Lutherans) and John Calvin (see Calvinism), who studied the Bible in its original languages of Hebrew and Greek, rather than in Latin translation. Following St. Paul, Luther stressed what God does for humanity through Christ, rather than how human beings prove themselves to God, with the result that faith (trust in God's actions), rather than ritual (human routines), became the touchstone of what Protestants regarded as true religion. The preachers, rather than the priests, became the leaders in Protestantism, basing the Christian message on the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Bible and summarizing it in set creeds. Consequently, to most North Americans, religion has come to mean a system of beliefs. Since Christians are theists (believers in a personal god), their central belief has been in God as creator, redeemer and judge of the world.

Among Roman Catholics, the church was a dominant influence in Québec until the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s because it served as an institutional base for nationalism. Anti-English sentiment was directed against Irish prelates in Ontario, as well as Protestant business leaders in Montréal. In the West, the "left wing" of the Reformation was predominantly represented by colonies of Mennonites and Hutterites. Immigrants from Eastern Europe included Russian and Ukrainian Christians from the Orthodox Church. Jewish worship has been led by rabbis from the Orthodox, Conservative and Reformed traditions.

In recent centuries, partly under the impact of the prophetic emphasis on personal faith and social justice, Christians and Jews influenced by the philosophy of Immanuel Kant have emphasized the moral life as the key to true religion. The Women's Christian Temperance Union advocated for women's rights with leaders such as Nellie McClung, and the founders of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (now the New Democratic Party) all stressed the Social Gospel. Consequently, religion typically refers to moral codes, as well as religious practices and creedal affirmations, as equally necessary components of any organized religion.

Interplay Between Past and Future

The contrast between the cultural compromises of different churches and "true religion" (considered as true faith, moral probity or purified ritual) means that, in the case of Christianity and other major religious movements such as Buddhism, believers must distinguish between the cultural forms associated with a religious tradition and its "critical edge." This is usually derived from its otherworldly perspective, or from contrasting the ideal life portrayed in its scriptures with the historical practices of different congregations. Allowing for both aspects, religion may be seen as the interplay between the past and the future, between traditional faith and the hope for the future of individuals and their communities. For instance, Christianity includes a range of practices, organizations and expectations of a life where God's will is fully realized (defined by many as heaven); Buddhism includes the customs of the monks and laity with respect to life in this world (samsara), and the expectation of ultimate bliss (nirvana).

As religion loses its hold on its sacred reference, it loses some of its reasons for being. Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, along with Québec historian and sociologist Gérard Bouchard, co-authored the Bouchard-Taylor Commission report, A Time for Reconciliation, which among other things assessed the cultural factors of this trend on the religious pluralism in Québec. Taylor’s A Secular Age provides an interpretation of what has come to be understood as the secularization of the West since the Reformation, arguing that religion has not been in the process of disappearing but has become increasingly diversified and personal.

The Study of Religions

Christian views have tended to dominate Western discussions of religion, but in the academic study of religion the impact of the social sciences has led to a more functional approach to research and understanding. Anthropologists have identified so-called primal traditions, including those of Aboriginal peoples in North America, and scholars of religion have reconsidered the significance of these traditions. For instance, where a culture is shaped without a codified scripture (such as the Bible or the Quran) and without formalized creeds, the meaning of different rituals is typically carried by myths that are relayed orally from generation to generation. Scholars have tended to impose cosmogonic myths (myths of creation) as the religiously significant mythology. However, some myths and their meanings remain concealed from researchers: the Shamans or tribal seers and medicine men and women who perform the rituals have often kept the secrets of the most sacred traditions of the group's ancestors and tribal life. Analysis of such traditions uses the contrast between the religious and the secular, since the sacred is equally secular ("this-worldly") in these traditions. The "sacred" is described as whatever is of foundational value in a given society and is a point of reference for creating order from chaos.

Through myth and ritual the symbolic system of values is often tied to specific events and places and within any given group, sacred mountains, trees, rivers, plants and symbols can be found.

The functional approach to religion can be used also to analyze religious traditions that rely on written scriptures. For instance, the importance of Mount Zion or Jerusalem in Judaism, Rome in Catholicism, and Mecca in Islam indicates the importance of sacred places and times in Judaeo-Christian culture, as does the close association of Christmas and Easter with winter and spring festivals. One consequence of the use of social science methodology in the study of religion today is that a profession of faith is less likely to be taken at face value than it was when its leaders controlled the study of religion. For instance, the hierarchical structure of the Roman Catholic and major Protestant churches can be viewed from outside those faiths as a set of myths and rituals that serve to reinforce male supremacy; within those faiths, this hierarchy is regarded as a response to divine revelation.

At the same time, a functional approach looks beyond the confines of formally organized religious groups for a broader view of religion. In modern Canada, research may look to rituals associated with Hockey Night in Canada and the Grey Cup, as well as the Hebrew Bible, when the discussion turns to our cultural and foundational values.

New Religions

The terms quasi-religious creeds, codes and cults have been used to describe non-mainstream religions; new religions exist as contemporary movements that develop articulated traditions that often have a social identity of non-conformity that is critical of the compromises of present culture. The assumption that religion must include a belief in a god or some form of supernaturalism prevents the inclusion of non-denominational movements under the heading "religion." Some participants in the environmental movement have developed seasonal rituals celebrating Mother Earth and have revived an interest in Wicca (knowledge of healing rhythms, herbal remedies, etc.). Many who interpret the spirituality within these religious movements are syncretists (i.e., those who combine ideas whose origins are in different religions), and minimize the divisions among traditional religions (see Spiritualism).

As various Asian traditions have been introduced to North America through immigration, one indirect consequence has been the development of new religious movements. Some of these are actually ancient but are newly transplanted and are attractive to Westerners disaffected with the secularism of Judaism and Christianity (e.g., Hare Krishna, which has its roots in Hinduism). Other groups represent a fusion of Christian and Asian beliefs (e.g., the Unification Church, which combines Christian with Korean ideas). Still others (e.g., Scientology) are the invention of charismatic individuals who gain a following by using traditional philosophies to meet secular aspirations. So far, these movements are known to us mostly through the functional analyses of social scientists or the claims of converts. While participation in traditional, organized religious practice may be on the decline (in 2011, 22 per cent of native born Canadians said they attended religious services at least once a month, down from 31 per cent in 1998), fascination with the occult and esoteric rituals seems to be on the rise in North America. Christians in North America, especially Pentecostals, have inspired some religious groups in once predominantly Catholic regions to convert, or adopt new religious beliefs. Such developments reinforce the claim that some form of religious behaviour is typical of all human societies, even when formal religion is repudiated.

Magic, Science and Religion

It is useful to distinguish the characteristics of magic, science and religion. Magic uses formulas supposed to effect changes willed by manipulative individuals. Science uses formulas or laws to explain general physical processes. Religion reflects ancestral wisdom and a spirituality that brings one to terms with one's personal destiny. With the increasing complexity of, and emphasis and specialization in the industrial world, these distinctions have become more significant. As it is, many critics have come to accept that science and religion need not conflict and that magical practices can be found in all cultural modes, including religion.


Religion has been studied as a reflection, or as an awareness, of weaknesses in human behaviour. Much religious imagery projects human fears concerning death and social decay onto symbols of ultimate power. Besides psychology, scientifically oriented scholars look to evolutionary biology for explanations of religious phenomena. In the name of religion, wars have been started, minorities persecuted and social inequalities such as apartheid perpetuated. At the same time, religion as a response to the deepest spiritual values in the universe has been the motive for major reform movements in history. Spiritual and moral leaders such as Gotama Buddha, Jesus, Confucius, Socrates, Muhammad and Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X have directly or indirectly inspired the abolition of slavery and the caste system, and the alleviation of ignorance and disease. Following the theory of psychologist Gordon Allport, one way to account for the paradox is to contrast extrinsic and intrinsic motivations in religion. Extrinsic motivation involves the use of religious institutions for other purposes, social or economic. Discrimination against women or minorities among some conservative Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities might be studied in this connection. Intrinsic motivation involves living by such commands as to love strangers and to seek justice for the less fortunate.

Religious Studies in Canada

English Canada

An integral part of early university pedagogy in the history of many Canadian universities and colleges, religion has continued to make significant academic contributions, especially in seminaries. Seminaries were established to teach ministers and church workers the particular doctrines of their denomination. Christianity was seen as the one true religion, and the denominational formulation of Christian doctrine was regarded as authoritative. Seminaries and their residences were frequently attached to universities, and their degrees were often given the status of university degrees. Despite criticism of anti-intellectualism and suspicion that courses could be used for proselytism (encouraging conversion) general religion courses in biblical literature or church history were offered by seminary staff to the arts and science faculties.

In the 1960s a distinction was made between confessional and academic studies of religion. This provided the philosophical prerequisite for new departments of religious studies established at universities including McMaster University, Sir George Williams University (now Concordia University) and the University of British Columbia. In these and similar institutions, religious studies are approached as an academic discipline and are located in faculties without denominational ties.

The Canadian Society for the Study of Religion (CCSR) was established 1965 to supplement three existing societies: the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies, the Canadian Society of Church History, and the Canadian Theological Society. The academically oriented CSSR was the first society connected with religion to join the learned societies and to adopt bilingualism. In 1970, the four societies formed the Canadian Corporation for Studies in Religion/ Corporation canadienne des sciences religieuses. In 1971, CCSR began publishing SR: Studies in Religion/Sciences religieuses, which succeeded the Canadian Journal of Theology. Today the CCSR publishes journals, books, and supports the academic study of religion.

Most universities and many colleges offer programs for religious studies including major world religions and movements, and sacred languages such as Hebrew and Sanskrit.

Wilfred Cantwell Smith stood out in the academic study of religion in Canada. A Presbyterian minister and an Islamic specialist, in 1951 he organized the McGill University Institute of Islamic Studies to foster academic interreligious dialogue. In 1964, Smith became Director of Harvard University's Centre for the Study of World Religions. Returning to Canada in 1973, he developed a religious studies department at Dalhousie University. Smith emphasized the cumulative history and the personal faith experience of each religion. Traditional Christian theology's assumption that it has a monopoly on divine grace and salvation was, in Smith's view, morally wrong and must give way to thinking that allows for God to be active in other traditions.

French Canada

In French Canada, the academic study of religion was long identified with the study of theology as practised in seminaries for the education of clergy. However, various phenomena and events of the Quiet Revolution era (1960–66) helped break that monopoly and speed the introduction of a new tradition in religious study. This new approach to religion had been known in Europe for a century, mainly under the German name Religionswissenschaft. In Québec it takes a number of names: human sciences of religion, sciences of religion, religious sciences and religiology. Many Francophone theologians belong to the Société canadienne de théologie. In 1944, francophone exegetes formed the Association catholique des études bibliques au Canada. The ACEBAC translated the New Testament in 1953; in 1982 it was reissued, with commentaries, by Éditions Bellarmin in Montréal.

French-language Canadian journals devoted to the scientific study of religion include Sciences religieuses and the Cahiers du centre de recherche en sciences de la religion of the Université Laval. Francophone theologians publish in magazines such as Science et Esprit, Laval théologique et philosophique, Église et théologie and Sciences pastorales. Cahiers éthicologiques follows research being done in ethics by the religious sciences department at Université du Québec.

See also Bible Schools; Sunday Schools.

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