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Data to Put Your Faith In

Cardus executive vice-president Ray Pennings has spent a lot of time speaking about the data around the role of faith in public life. But, says Pennings, data doesn't exist for itself. Today, Peter Stockland reports on Pennings' recent presentation in Montreal as a shining example of how data lets institutions and society adjust to new realities.

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Data to Put Your Faith In November 23, 2018  |  By Peter Stockland
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On a late October evening, Cardus’ Ray Pennings stood in the parish hall of a Catholic church leading a modest but highly engaged Montreal audience through the story of faith through numbers.

It was a fresh version of the talk which the think tank’s executive vice-president has given regularly over the past two years as data has accrued from the Spirited Citizenship initiative that the Cardus has undertaken with the Angus Reid Institute. During the summer, he gave it at the Ideacity 2018 conference in Toronto. More recently, to some of the highest-powered business leaders in the country through the auspices of the Conference Board of Canada.

In the church basement in Montreal’s Cote-Des-Neiges neighbourhood, he was equally at home delivering the message to gathered Christians that Canadians of faith must start effectively telling secular society not just what religion means to the religious, but how vitally it contributes to a vibrant, giving, and tolerant society. 

The Spirited Citizenship data is telling a narrative about the role of faith in public life that’s very different from the generally accepted, or presumed, Main Street narrative,” Pennings would later tell Convivium. “Simply sharing the data is a welcome opportunity. But data doesn’t exist for itself. It exists so institutions and society can learn about themselves and adjust their behaviours to the realities they face day-to-day.”

For Anna Farrow, executive director of the English Speaking Catholic Council that hosted the event and invited Pennings to speak, realistic adjustment was the perfect topic for 2018. The ESSC launched a survey that evening, which it expects to publish by June, that will allow it to adapt to the profound changes in the demographic mix of Montreal’s English-speaking Catholics. And St. Kevin’s was the ideal place to hear it. 

The parish, which perches on Cote-Des-Neiges road at just about the midpoint of one of the city’s most varied multicultural neighbourhoods, was founded in 1938 by Irish Montrealers who’d moved up from the shores of the St. Lawrence where their immigrant forebears helped build the Lachine Canal. Today, 75 to 80 per cent of parishioners are Filipino. A substantial portion of the rest are from the Caribbean or Africa. 

“In the coffee time after Mass, Tagalog is definitely the language being spoken,” Farrow says.

But with that shift has come acute awareness of the seamless nature of faith and community, she adds. Newcomers to Canada make their faith a vital starting point for joining and building community. They go to church to worship. But the very shared act of worship brings them into networks of support, of friendship, of connection with distant homes. 

The Spirited Citizenship data amassed through the Cardus-Angus Reid partnership bears that out empirically, not just a warm and fuzzy hope. And that’s what the audience that came to hear Ray Pennings was eager to hear more about.

“Inviting Ray was inspired by reading the survey data that showed newcomers to Canada not only had a more positive view of the role of faith in their own lives, but also in the wider square,” Farrow says. “It shows faith communities are communities that newcomers turn to for support in being integrated into Canada.”

For an organization such as the English Speaking Catholic Council, the ability to demonstrate that reality in hard, social science numbers is the perfect complement to the anecdotal sense of what’s happening at the individual parish level, and in Montreal’s English-speaking diocese as a whole. It’s a combination that government officials from bureaucracies such as Immigration Canada, the media, and even the general public will pay attention to when the story is told.

“As Ray’s data shows, people coming to Canada are practicing their faith in greater numbers so these people are going to be showing up from Sunday to Sunday in our parishes. From a citizen’s point of view, we need to ask what it means to integrate newcomers to Canadian society. And if we’re serious about being church, we have to ask how we meet the needs of our parishioners. Faith and community go together.”

Pennings calls such use of the Spirited Citizenship data “exciting” from a research perspective, and inspiring for a Christian think tank such as Cardus. Whether particular data points are positive or negative for the story of faith in public life overall, knowing they can be applied to specific situations for concrete action is “invigorating.” That’s why Spirited Citizenship is being augmented by creation of a regularly updated index that will measure everything from perceptions of various faith traditions to religious attitudes among young Canadians.

Indeed, one of the data points that recent surveys have uncovered is the high level of tolerance among people of faith for traditions other than their own.

“If you take the continuum of religiosity, those on the religious side are far more tolerant of those different from themselves. Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, they are more likely to think positively about other groups,” Pennings says. “It’s not so on the non-religious side. The 20 per cent who are non-believers are negative about every group except themselves. There is a spirit and a willingness to see good in others that correlates very strongly with religion.”

That, he tells his audience in St. Kevin’s church basement, is a message that has to be taken to the streets of Cote-Des-Neiges and across Canada. It’s key part of the story of faith that the numbers bear out, and that bears being told over and over. Not, he stresses, to browbeat secular society but to show Canadians the true face of religious believers.

“You can’t separate the love of God from love of neighbour,” he says. “And we are discovering through the data that those who are very committed in terms of their love of God bring much more intensified focus to their neighbour.”


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