Polls show that Beth is not alone in her view of God. Canadians view God with increasing indifference, if not hostility, with young people like Beth being the most skeptical. Just before Easter last year, a nationwide survey found that 67% of Canadians still believed in God. However, that number is somewhat deceiving because it doesn’t show how relevant God is to the lives of those interviewed. In fact, the same survey found that only 42% agreed that “religion is an important part of my life.”[i]
One way to measure devotion to God even further is to examine how often Canadians practice their faith by attending weekly religious gatherings. Sociologist Dr. Reginald Bibby found that, “in the last decade, the proportion of people who worship at least once a month has remained steady at around 30%.”[ii] But Bibby argues that these attendees were not committed to faith or the church. Rather, he characterizes these religious attendees as “the politically undecided”: they haven’t dropped out and occasionally drop [in].”[iii] In fact, only 27%[iv] of Canadians were “churched” – people who attended every week and were committed to their faith’s teachings. That means less than half of Canadians who claimed to believe in God actually attended a weekly gathering where they could learn about God.
One possible explanation for this difference between belief in God and church attendance is what Canadians actually think about God. Jack Jedwab, the executive director of the Association for Canadian Studies, the company that commissioned the 2012 poll, says that his poll is consistent with other Canadian studies. “We’re not as engaged religiously,” he told National Post. “Our population is more spiritual, if you like, than actually religious in an organized fashion.”
This distinction between religious and spiritual is a crucial one. In fact, a group of sociologists studied 346 people from many religious backgrounds by asking them to explain the phrase “spiritual, but not religious.”[v] Though the study was in the US, Jedwab’s comments suggest the nuances between the two words are the same here. The scientists found that:
[R]eligiousness was associated with higher levels of interest in church attendance and commitment to orthodox beliefs. Spirituality, in contrast, was associated with higher levels of interest in mysticism, experimentation with unorthodox beliefs and practices, and negative feelings toward both clergy and churches.
How do those who consider themselves “spiritual” experiment with their beliefs? “Forsaking formal religious organizations, these people have instead embraced an individualized spirituality that includes picking and choosing from a wide range of alternative religious philosophies.” In other words, they decide what they want to believe about God, what they think God expects of them, and therefore what they want to do for God. Rather than following God, they choose a god who follows them.
And that’s not the end of the story. These same polls show that belief in God is even less significant for younger Canadians. Of those 18 to 24, only 56% believed in God compared to 79% of those 65 or older. Only 30% of those aged 18 to 24 agreed that religion is important to their life, less than half of those over 65.
A 2009 Maclean’s article looked at teens and religion as well, and found that religious “devotion is rare among teens these days—or at least, among those from Protestant and Catholic households. Just as the younger generation is abandoning the Christian faith, though, non-Western religions, such as Islam and Buddhism, are growing in Canada at a surprising speed.”[vi] In fact, the article states that, “more teens now identify as Muslim than Anglican, United Church of Canada and Baptist combined. As a group, the percentage who adhere to so-called “other faiths” has grown fivefold since 1984, while the percentage of teens who identify as Roman Catholic has declined by one third, and the percentage who identify as Protestant is down by almost two-thirds.”[vii]Since 1984, those teens who call themselves Christian (not specifying a denomination) “has almost been cut in half while the number who call themselves atheist has grown to 16 percent, up from just six percent in the mid-1980s.”[viii]
The lack of religious commitment shouldn’t be surprising since it’s part of a natural progression away from God. Reginald Bibby points out that, “as the boomers shifted toward agnosticism, teens are now going a step further and rejecting religion entirely.”[ix]
And this shift is accelerating. It’s fuelled by those who argue that religion isn’t just false, but dangerous. Authors and writers like Richard Dawkins have built media empires on books that are highly critical of God, particularly the Judeo-Christian God. In one book, he writes:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. [x]
Not only is that an attack on the biblical God, it’s disparaging to those “foolish” enough to follow that kind of God. In that 2012 poll, Canadians revealed that they trusted non-religious people more than religious people. Only 67% of those surveyed said they trusted “people who are religious” in general, but more respondents (73%) expressed trust in “people who are not religious.”
There are significant differences between those who identify with one specific religious view of God and those who don’t. Religious establishments are places where people go to learn about “God,” and from their established texts learn how to be active in their society. The above mentioned 2009 Maclean’s article found, “that teens who belong to an organized religion…tend to put a higher value on trust, honesty and concern for others.”[xi] Furthermore, “95% of young people who ‘definitely’ believe in God or a higher power also think this entity”[xii] is the standard for them ‘being good’”. Belief in God helps shape their actions and motivations. But what about those who don’t believe in God? Who shapes their beliefs and actions? If the only things that shape them are individual preferences and individual interpretations of reason, then what restrains them from doing wrong? What guides their thinking about the supernatural world? As Christian professor, Duffy Robbins says, “Our young people have become incapable of theological thinking because they don’t have any theology to think about.”[xiii]
Simply put: theology matters! How one views God directly influences how one will interpret the world, and how one interprets the world determines how one will act in it. Should our children interpret the world according to the truth about God or their opinion about God? Too many people like Beth are leaving the church with a false understanding of God – they’ve embraced a view of God that simply cannot be true because not all views of God can be correct; many are mutually exclusive.
People like Beth still matter to God, and should matter to those who claim to follow Him. That’s why I’m writing for this upcoming series on God. I want Canadians like her to know that not only are there good reasons to believe in God, but there are good reasons to trust and follow Him as well. Canadians in general may not think highly of God, but He is still willing to reveal Himself to those who honestly seek Him. I pray Beth and others like her will be willing to do so.