Which religions are strong in Canada?

Which religions are strong in Canada?
Photo credit: Canva.com

By Brian Carwana

We often hear that religion in Canada is waning as the percentage of non-religious people has surged. But the story gets more complicated if we ask a different question: namely which communities are keeping their members best and which are struggling to retain their children once they become adults. Helping us answer that question is new data provided by Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme, a professor in Sociology and Legal Studies at the University of Waterloo. Below I want to share with you some of her statistics and what we can learn from them about religious identity in Canada.

Below is Laflamme’s key chart summarizing the data. Please note that this asks people about identity and not for example about attendance. Some may say “I am a Christian” without attending church regularly.

Photo credit: University of Waterloo

A few things stand out:

  • Christians score the lowest. Protestants especially have retention rates in the 70s. Catholics do a little better, crossing the 80% threshold while Orthodox Christians do quite a bit better, nearing 90%.
  • The Sikhs get the prize with an eye-popping 98.4%.
  • Muslims come second at 93%. Jews are also high at 91%.
  • Nones (people raised with no religion) tend to stay nones with 91% identifying this way as adults.

So what accounts for this? Two things stand out for me.

Fusing Religion with Ethnicity/Nationalism

First, scholar David Martin claims that religious identity withstands secularizing forces better when it fuses with other elements of identity. If religion is tied with ethnicity or nationalism – when being a true Moroccan means also being Muslim – than that identity is embedded more deeply in the person.

Sociologist David Martin. Photo credit: Wikipedia.org, File: David Martin, c1980s (4438441442).jpg

I think this partly explains why the Sikh community does so well. Most Sikhs share a cultural heritage in the Punjab region of India and Pakistan. When you attend a gurdwara, it goes beyond religious identity. People there look like you (a racial minority in Canada), they speak your family’s language, eat the same foods, and share the same holidays. You make friends there who get you and your family. The spiritual component clearly matters but these cumulative factors make the identity thicker than mere religion. It’s ethno-cultural-religious which will likely play a larger role in defining who you are. Similarly, Jews have high retention. Judaism is an ethnicity and a religion with specific holidays featuring beloved foods and traditions. Being Jewish comes with a whole story of who “we” are as a people.

Sikh Gurdwara. Photo credit: Canva.com

Defending a Minority Identity

I think a second factor is being distinct. A fellow religion scholar and friend of mine from Montreal shared that when she was young, she had friends who identified as Egyptian and as Pakistani and were known this way by their peers. But after 9/11, their identity became “Muslim.” They were still Egyptian-Canadians of course but the society now saw them primarily through their religious identity.

Our identities are not just how we see ourselves, but how others see us. Being perceived as different can have negative repercussions in terms of feeling excluded, facing discrimination, etc. But, conversely, it may embed that identity more deeply into the person.

Some Sikhs wear turbans and uncut beards, making them very distinct in our society. Hence, your grandfather or uncle really stands out and you can quite naturally feel protective of them and of your community. The otherness means you need to defend your community which, in turn, makes the identity more integral to who you are. Muslims face discrimination and misunderstandings and the hijab/headscarf again causes othering. But the person being othered is your mom. That’s personal and can cause people to fight for their community and their identity.

Photo credit: Canva.com

Blending In May Harm Retention

Conversely, Protestant Christians mostly lack these extra components to their identity. Being Protestant does not make you distinct in Canada, does not connect to ethnicity, and you or your family are unlikely to stand out in a crowd. Catholicism more often connects with ethno-cultural elements (e.g. Italian Catholics or Hispanic Catholicism). Orthodox Christians, however, belong to national churches. You are Russian Orthodox or Greek Orthodox which means the whole congregation shares your ethnic background, language, foods, holidays, etc.

Being part of a minority creates a special connection. My family heritage is Maltese. We are a tiny ethnic group so when I run into another Maltese, it’s like finding someone who belongs to your secret club. They know what pastizzi is, they have walked the magnificent streets of Valetta and they have the deep appropriate reverence for the wonder that is the olive. (I see you laughing….which only strengthens my defense of us Maltese you heathen!). My wife, who is of British heritage, simply does not find the same connection bumping into another British person because, well, such people are everywhere. The country speaks English, has a British parliament, and follows British clothing norms. But in being everywhere, it does not need to be clung to.

Maltese pastry, pastizzi, with Valletta in the background. Photo credit: Canva.com


One final note about the Sikhs. Why do they outperform even other ethno-cultural groups? I suspect it stems partly from their mandatory practice of feeding people. At a gurdwara (temple), it is required that they feed you, something embedded in every gathering and that you learn at an early age. To be clear, many other religious communities serve others but for Sikhs, service (or seva) is not merely a good deed but part of identity, part of who Sikhs are. And it’s not just language…it’s baked in, if you will, into the basics of religious practice. When COVID first hit, people were afraid and truck drivers could not get food but the Sikhs fed those drivers and rented porta potties for them. If your identity is we serve others and it is backed up by regular practices where you yourself engage in serving…well, that is something that engenders pride and commitment. I suspect this act – feeling so profoundly like your community does good – is the final cherry on top. It sure seems like something you would proudly hold on to.

Photo credit: Encounter World Religions

(Brian Carwana has a PhD in religion, a business degree, and worked as a strategy consultant. He is the Executive Director of Encounter World Religions where he has been teaching people about ethno-religious communities and facilitating actual “encounters” for  20 years. This article is reprinted with permission of the author and originally appeared on the ReligionsGeek website).