Religious revival

Whether it’s coping with grief, dealing with illness or finding meaning in this complex world, many 50-plus Canadians are turning to spirituality for answers.

The Bible, it’s often said, is the world’s all-time best-selling book. Yet today if you peruse the shelves of Canada’s major bookstores, you’ll find texts on atheism are providing the Good Book with some stiff competition.

Three much-discussed books championing atheism – Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great; Michael Onfray’s In Defense of Atheism and Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion – hit the bestseller lists in the past year, their robust sales proving that while denying God’s existence may get you into trouble in the afterlife, it can nevertheless be a lucrative pursuit right here on earth.

Despite the fact it’s such a hot topic, it seems atheism hasn’t gained as strong a foothold among 50-plus Canadians as its literary popularity would suggest. Recent surveys show that even with ever-dwindling church attendance and the ongoing secularization of society, most Canadians aren’t yet ready to break out in John Lennon’s 1971 hymn to atheism: Imagine there’s no heaven/It’s easy if you try/No hell below us/Above us only sky.

In fact, according to a 2001 census, the last year Statistics Canada tracked our spiritual beliefs, 80 per cent of Canadians were convinced there’s more above us than sky. This figure includes more than 10 million people over the age of 45 who claim some sort of religious affiliation, either Christian, Jewish, Muslim or one of the varieties of eastern faiths. The number of these believers dwarfed the fewer than 6,000 people over 45 who, on the same census, identified themselves as atheists.

While these figures don’t necessarily prove the existence of God, they do illustrate that to the vast majority of Canada’s mature population, spirituality does matter. Not surprisingly, many of the census respondents aligned themselves with one of the mainstream faiths, with Roman Catholics leading the way. For many, these traditional religions help to organize the universe, providing answers to difficult questions and offering useful guidelines, which help us navigate safely through this often stormy world.

The church, synagogue, mosque or temple remain a significant part of our lives, not only as places we celebrate births and weddings or mourn at funerals but as sanctuaries where we can escape the noise and complexities of our lives and experience a moment of quiet introspection. Religious houses serve as a focal point of the community – places we turn to in times of grief, despair or loneliness. They’re also great hubs of socialization and centres for charitable and humanitarian works.

But besides those who belong to mainstream churches, sociologists are now tracking a somewhat unexpected new phenomenon, namely people 50 and over who abandoned religion in their 20s and 30s but are now slowly trickling back to the fold. It seems that a congregation of baby boomers that once severed ties with all religions is experiencing a sort of religious renewal, looking for ways to fill a spiritual void.