A leap for some faiths, but many Canadians are losing their religion

Mariam Butt was raised by Muslim parents in Brampton, Ont., but only started truly practising the faith a little over a year ago, when she was 17. There was no self-consciousness about wearing the hijab or ducking away to pray five times a day where she lives.

“When I did start practising I was comfortable because everyone was your own in a way so you weren’t judged as much,” Ms. Butt, now 18, says. “I think if I lived in a less Asian-populated area, it would’ve been much harder.”

Brampton, west of Toronto, is home to one of the country’s largest Muslim populations – and it’s growing.

The latest release of data from the National Household Survey reveals 3.2 per cent of Canadians identified as being Muslim in 2011, up from 2 per cent in 2001 – an increase of 60 per cent that’s most notable in suburban cities such as Brampton, which has a particularly young Muslim population.

Recent immigration trends were a key factor for Muslims and some other religions: Those reporting Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist made up 2.9 per cent of immigrants who came to Canada before 1971, but they accounted for 33 per cent of immigrants who arrived between 2001 and 2011.

And although the proportion of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs is on the rise in Canada, the marked demographic trend is the increasing number of people who claim no religious affiliation at all. The new survey suggests that nearly 24 per cent of the people living in this country do not belong to any particular religion. That is up from 16.5 per cent in 2001 and 12.6 per cent in 1991.

In other words, the percentage of people who do not feel aligned with an organized belief has nearly doubled over the past two decades.

Christianity remains the dominant religion in Canada, but all of the Christian faiths, with the possible exception of Orthodox Christianity, are experiencing a decline.

And Jews, who represent about 1 per cent of the population, are also seeing their numbers shrink slightly as a percentage of the population.

Paul Bramadat, the director of the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society at the University of Victoria, believes the Muslim numbers released in the National Household Survey are a gross underrepresentation. “I don’t doubt that the decreases in Christianity are occurring and the increases in other religions are occurring, but the actual numbers are the problem,” he says, adding he believes Canada’s Muslim community grew by much more than the survey suggests.

Because the NHS, unlike the former long-form census, was voluntary, comparing the data to previous surveys can be problematic, Dr. Bramadat says. While the overall arch of the story told by the survey is probably correct, specific numbers seem skewed, he says.

Statistics Canada added its own disclaimer to the documents: “The NHS estimates are derived from a voluntary survey and are therefore subject to potentially higher non-response error than those derived from the 2006 census long form,” it stated.

Dr. Bramadat cites another example of a number that seems off: 4.5 per cent of the aboriginal population reported an affiliation with aboriginal spirituality. “In my view that 4.5 figure is extremely low,” he says, “and probably is a good illustration of the shortcomings of this census.”

Few places in Canada have seen a more pronounced turn away from religion than Quebec, where the dominant religion, Catholicism, has been in continual, precipitous decline since the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s.

Some 83 per cent of Quebeckers still identified themselves as Catholic as recently as 2001, a phenomenon sociologists describe as “cultural Catholicism,” where Quebeckers have held on to the identity without the practice. Sociologist Raymond Lemieux, who developed the idea in the 1990s, has said Quebeckers are “Christian in spite of themselves.”

The new numbers show even that loose affiliation is breaking down, with 74 per cent of Quebeckers describing themselves as Catholic, a decline of 11 percentage points in 10 years. The path away from religion taken by Françoise Lacroix, who was born in 1944, is typical in the province.

Ms. Lacroix was raised in a devout family but began to pose questions as a teenager in the 1960s, eventually refusing to go to church every Sunday – to the outrage of her parents. “It was very difficult. They weren’t very happy, but in the end, they accepted it,” she says.

Ms. Lacroix still held on to links to the church, partly to satisfy her parents. She married in the church and then had her two daughters, born in the 1970s, baptized. Both were sent to Catholic private school in Quebec City, although that decision was based on quality of instruction rather than religion.

By the early 1980s, she recalls reciting the profession of faith at mass with her daughter, who noticed she went silent at the portion expressing faith in the church. “I told her I didn’t believe it,” Ms. Lacroix recalls. “You have to remember how severe the church was, how hard it fought against women’s rights. It was time we put an end to it.”

Ms. Lacroix stopped attending completely in the 1980s, when her girls finished school. Neither of her grown daughters practise any religion and neither of her grandchildren have been baptized.

“For a long time people were afraid and were hedging their bets. There was this lingering fear your unbaptized child would burn for eternity,” Ms. Lacroix says. “There’s not much of that left now.”

So while churches in Quebec are empty and sold off to be converted into condos, newer immigrant communities still fill their temples when times of worship come around.

In Brampton, the Makki Masjid mosque draws big crowds on Fridays. Just down the road at the New Makkah halal butcher shop where Ms. Butt helps out her father, a sign outside warns, “Do not park here for Friday prayer. They will tow your car. Cost is $400.”

Even on a Wednesday afternoon, cars and minivans trickle into the parking lot just ahead of the 2 p.m. prayer. Preteens in long white tunics from the adjoining Islamic school halt their basketball game.

Fatima Syeda, 36, left work with her five-year-old son Ahmad, who was off school for the day, to pray.

Since arriving in Canada from India last June, she says she’s never had difficulty practising her faith given Brampton’s large Muslim population. Her employer is okay with her and fellow Muslim colleagues taking off to pray in the afternoon.

“I have never had any problem to follow my religion, to follow my customs,” she says.