One in four Canadians declare affiliation to no religion, but why are so many ‘nones’ surprisingly religious?

More than 8,000 academics are gathered at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., this week for the annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, presenting papers on how we live, love, learn and clash. Over the coming days, the National Post will highlight some of the most compelling research. Today, Joseph Brean writes about how suburbanites find their own paths to individuality:

To sociologists of religion, they are the “nones.”

Officially non-religious, they are not Catholic, nor Jewish, nor Sikh, Muslim, Buddhist or Anglican. Asked for their religion, they tick the box for “none.”

But this is not quite right. Rather, according to new research presented at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, the “nones” look more like “somes,” with a great many still behaving as “spiritual seekers” in their own way.

In an age of “individually constructed belief systems and personal spiritual practices,” the rise of the nones “may not necessarily be coupled with a complete decline of other types of religiosity,” according to Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme, a Canadian studying at Oxford University.

This is the buffet view of religion and, as her research suggests, Canadians are still hungry, even when they deny it.

It shows “nones,” whose numbers grew in Canada from 10% in 1985 to around 25% today, are a diverse group, spanning militant atheists and freelance spiritualists, onetime Catholics, non-observant Jews, secular Muslims, and others.

Surveys indicate a fifth of them attend religious services annually, not just weddings and funerals. More than one in seven practice “personal religiosity” at least weekly, and a third consider their religious and spiritual beliefs important to the way they lead their lives. Two out of five believe in God, one in five have experienced God’s presence, more than third believe in a life after death, and more than one in 10 pray weekly.

Of course, overall, religion is in decline. In Canada and across the West, since the 1970s, declining rates of religious affiliation have dramatically altered the sociological picture.

Curiously, as Ms. Wilkins-Laflamme writes, the research focus is on those who stick with it, rather than those who claim to have left.

“Evidence is beginning to build outside of Canada that the unaffiliated are not as unreligious as many often assume,” she writes. “This is an important development not only for the study of religion, but also for other social phenomena which religiosity is known to impact, such as physical and mental health, choice of educational track, volunteering, family formation and vote choice.”

Her paper sets out two theories to explain the trend: “stages of decline” and individualization.

“Stages of decline” says everything is becoming less religious, by stages, and decline in religious behaviour should parallel decline in religious beliefs. The end point of this process is the collapse of religion as a social force in the West.

On the other hand, the theory of individualization says it is only institutional indicators that are falling. People still participate in a more personal way, and “we are now entering an age dominated by individually constructed belief systems and personal spiritual practices.”

This is known as believing without belonging, and is thought to be motivated by religious socialization and the need to answer the intractable questions of life.

“In the modern era, individuals move away more and more from churches and religious groups for a variety of reasons, including a dislike of the political involvement and undertones as well as the authoritarianism found in many churches,” Ms. Wilkins-Laflamme writes. “According to this framework then, unaffiliated individuals, although not identifying with any particular denomination or religion, would still be characterized by other, more personal forms of religiosity.”

As it turned out, the numbers — drawn from various Canadian surveys, representing 50,000 people — support stages of decline theory.

“It would appear that, as the number of the unaffiliated grows among younger age groups, levels of personal religiosity among these unaffiliated decline in tandem,” according to Ms. Wilkins-Laflamme.