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Religion's Perception Gap

With today's release of the fourth major Angus Reid Institute polls on the state of religion in Canada, Cardus Executive Vice-President Ray Pennings says the biggest identifiable gap is between Canadians' positive lived experiences of faith and their negative perceptions arising from narratives about spiritual belief. 

7 minute read
Topics: Community, Diversity, Faith In Canada 150
Religion's Perception Gap November 16, 2017  |  By Peter Stockland with Ray Pennings
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Convivium: The results coming out today are from the fourth Angus Reid Institute polls done on the state of faith in Canada. What’s the most important finding, and how do these results fit with those that have come before?

Ray Pennings: The temptation is to pull one headline and say this is what it’s all about. I actually think the strength of this poll is the building of the narrative, which is a complex narrative. Sometimes emphasizing complexity rather than simplicity has its value. If we take what we have done over the course of the year, what we find first of all is that faith has a perception problem.  We asked a whole bunch of questions about religion and got negative results. We asked about values, spirituality and prayer, and got results that were far more positive than most would expect.

So, there’s a disconnection between lived religion and perceived religion.  There’s a gap between perception and reality. The second poll focused very much on the expressions of faith, and we discovered that faith has actually a much bigger role in Canada’s public life than most would expect from the narrative.

You might say that’s a fruit of the perception problem. I think it’s also a sense of a lack of vocabulary – and we see some of it in this poll as well – because when you ask questions that people can answer based on their own experience of the synagogue at the end of the street, the soup kitchen in their neighbourhood…something that is tangible and that people can relate to, they actually have a positive sense of religion. Religion lives, its very plausible, it’s very real and it has a huge impact in Canadian society. When you ask general questions about the narrative, people tend to be very negative. 

I think the clues to that are in this poll. There are two things I would highlight. First of all we asked about eight groups, and whether they are helpful or hurtful to society. All the Christian faiths and Judaism are net positives. More people think they’re beneficial than are negative about them. Atheism is at -1, so it’s a wash, as is Hinduism. The two negatives are Islam and Sikhism. Both of them are very visible.  Sikhs wear turbans. Islam is identified with the burka and the niqab.

But when you take a look at their numbers – just over three per cent for Islam, less than one per cent for Sikhism ­ –  we’re talking about a very small percentage of the population. It means that when people are answering those questions based on damage or benefit, they’re answering based on the narrative of faith rather than the experience of faith. What I found very surprising is that Catholics are net positive at 35 per cent who think Catholics are benefitting society to 17 per cent who think they’re damaging society, a plus-18.

Convivium: That’s especially compelling when you think of the Catholic Church being so off side with prevailing opinion on so many issues, isn’t it?

Ray Pennings: Yes. There’s the debate about burka and the niqab, but there are also huge issues relating to the Catholic Church that also deal with the public narrative. And yet that public narrative doesn’t stick as strongly in the results as it does with people you don’t know. Really what this is telling us is that there is a huge role for faith in Canadian public life that’s lived and experienced but our public narrative is at a disconnect with the reality.

Convivium:  Would you agree the data seem contradictory in terms of the numbers of people who like religion being part of society versus those who think it has no place in public life.

Ray Pennings: They’re split down the middle, roughly 50-50. What I find interesting about all of these questions is that when you take a look at the intensity of anti-faith feelings in the group of non-believers, or even their feelings about Islam, people of faith are far more positive about those who are Muslim than non-believers are. Forty-five per cent of non-believers say that Islam is damaging. Only five per cent have any positive view of Muslims – a 40 per cent gap. With the religiously committed, the gap is half that. You see this throughout. If you take that group of 20 per cent who are anti-religious, they are militantly anti-religious. They are far more anti-religious than religious people are religious.

C: The depth of anti-Muslim feeling struck me. An obvious conclusion is that Islam has a serious problem with the way it’s perceived in Canada. But non-Muslims also have a problem because Muslims are a rapidly growing demographic group. There’ll surely come a point, on the sheer basis of numbers, where we’re going to have to reconcile.

RP: I’m not Muslim. I can’t tell Muslims how their theology needs to develop. But we hosted an interfaith dialogue last week in which Muslim representatives at the table recognized the challenge that they have internally with their own theology. Some groups within Islam interpret that theology in very illiberal ways that it can be argued are a contradiction to a liberal democratic society.  They have to work that through.

There’s an anti-faith narrative that’s in the public domain ­– and I don’t mean just the media; I think it’s true of all our institutions. We have grown up with the idea that you don’t talk about religion, sex and politics at the table. We obviously talk about politics in public life, we talk about sex in public life, but we have not got yet to the point where we know how to talk about religion in public life.

Our lack of a religious vocabulary doesn’t equip us to understand our Muslim neighbours, and doesn’t give them the tools to make the necessary growth within their own communities. The theological adaptation that’s necessary in Islam requires a vocabulary that can work within a liberal democratic society in which there are fundamental rights and freedoms that include gender equality for example. What does that mean in a Muslim context? These are real issues that have to be worked out within that community. We can’t do that from the outside.

C: Christians are working through that process ourselves in terms of how we make those accommodations in a rapidly changing society, aren’t we?

RP: It’s just a century since women won the right to vote in a democratic society, so there is an adaptation that has to happen.  But stepping back to the poll writ large, when we take all of the polls, the temptation is to come with one single point but I think the message is there is a complexity and a nuance about faith in public life that we have not developed the public vocabulary we need to deal with the nuance.

C: Cardus did have 30-plus people around the table at the Spirited Citizenship conference to initiate that conversation. It was a civil conversation.  It managed to have different people of very different faiths looking for the vocabulary of faith in common life that you mention.

RP: Yes, including people who would self-identify in the non-believer category, hostile to faith but willing to have that conversation. What was remarkable to me in that session was the number of people who commented that they had not been in that sort of session before.

We have so many conversations in which we discuss, but everybody in the room is in the same category. If we take the four categories of our poll ­ - the religiously committed, the privately committed, the skeptical, and the non-believers – each of these four groups tends to gather with themselves and have conversations with themselves about religion and people who “think like us.”

The challenge of a liberal democratic society is whether we can learn how to discuss difference according to the fundamental values of our Charter and our Constitution, where people can feel free without being marginalized or put at risk for what they deeply hold true about why we’re here, what’s the point of it all, and where we’re going.

C: Is there a value in beginning to look at this process in terms of non-belief, too, and begin to probe where it comes from, to have a conversation about why there’s this hostility to faith?

RP: I think it’s very important that we don’t approach non-believers through an interpretive lens of victimhood: “The anti-religious are hostile, therefore woe are we who are religious.”  I think that’s a wrong narrative. It’s not about persecution and victimhood. People of faith have either assumed a majoritarian position or have retreated and privatized their own faith as well. Part of this belongs with people of faith who have failed to say, “Faith is not just about the people I worship with; faith is about my neighbourhood and involves my life in the midst of society.”

Without speaking for those who are in the non-religious category, we also have to recognize a lot of people have been hurt, and that creates a certain hostility that can border on the irrational. But it is real nonetheless because it points to real feelings inside based on lived experience. I don’t think we should be blind to some of the hostility that comes toward faith comes from communities of faith not always living up to their own ideals, and have hurt people in the process. That said, I also don’t want liberal guilt to be there because as is very clear from the data while communities of faith haven’t been perfect, they are actually doing way more good than they’re getting credit for. Tbey continue to provide an essential ingredient of Canadian society.

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Topics: Community, Diversity, Faith In Canada 150
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