[Research] The Meaning of Sunday: The Practice of Belief in a Secular Age … Continuing the Conversation

In this blog post, sociologist Joel Thiessen follows up on his previous NSRN contribution “Religious Nones in Canada: A Qualitative Exploration” which previewed the findings of his newest book Thejoel Meaning of Sunday: The Practice of Belief in a Secular Age. Since its release, Thiessen has continued to interpret these findings through “author-meets-critics” sessions at some major conferences. Below, he charts some of the most provocative questions coming out of those sessions, whose as-yet-unknown answers might steer where our knowledge of Canadian nones goes next.

Background

The Canadian Society for the Study of Religion (May 2016) and Association for the Sociology of Religion annual meetings (August 2016) provided me the occasion to receive feedback on my recent book, The Meaning of Sunday: The Practice of Belief in a Secular Age. The following individuals kindly participated in the author-meets-critics sessions (framed by Paul Bramadat as a hazing ritual!): Reginald Bibby, Paul Bramadat, Sam Reimer, Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme, Ryan Cragun, David Eagle, Marcus Mann, and Josh Packard. All were generous in spirit and substantive content.

This monograph is based on face-to-face interviews with three groups of Canadians: 30 active religious affiliates (identify with a Christian group and attend religious services nearly every week), 30 marginal religious affiliates (identify with a Christian group and attend religious services mainly for religious holidays and rites of passage), and 30 religious nones (do not identify with any religion and never attend religious services). Contrary to rational choice theorists who contend that there is ongoing demand for the things that religious groups offer (e.g. meaning and purpose in life, life after death), I question the assumption that if we simply adjust religious supply (e.g. better music or preaching, more programming, or more liberal theology) we should expect increased involvement in institutionalized forms of religious life. Further, I develop how and why I think secularization theory remains useful for describing and explaining religious belief and practice in Canada.

Some Questions Raised

As the critics generally affirmed my central premises and conclusions, they raised a range of pertinent questions. Below are some of those questions and my brief responses in turn.

Are the three central affiliate categories fixed or do individuals navigate their way in and out of the different camps during their life course?

Both/and … and a longitudinal panel study (which I hope to do) will help to unpack the specific directions and contexts for such transitions. Still, my hunch – based on data elsewhere – is that most of the transitions, if/when they occur, move toward the secular end of the continuum. That is, active affiliates are more likely to become marginal affiliates or religious nones versus religious nones who become marginal affiliates or active affiliates; and marginal affiliates are more prone toward religious nones than active affiliates.

Does societal secularization cause individual secularization or do these processes occur simultaneously?

This is an insightful chicken versus egg problem. Building on Peter Berger and Steve Bruce, I suggest the former in the project. Yet upon further consideration I see the argument that society is ultimately made up of individuals and thus rather than evoking causational language, correlation is more apt. But I stand by the core assertion that if strong religiosity or secularity are encouraged in the social environment/discourse, individuals will more easily follow the societal norms – as reflected in politics, education, mass media, the law, or healthcare. I hope to nuance this relationship further in future writing on this topic.

Are religious nones as tolerant toward active affiliates as I suggest?

My reading of other data in Canada does not lead me to conclude otherwise. True, a recent study by Angus Reid reveals that those without religion have more negative feelings toward those in conservative religious groups (and vice versa) – but do these perceptions translate into intolerant behaviours toward active affiliates? I have my doubts. There are surely pockets of religious nones in Canada who would be an exception to this interpretation, but religious nones overall do not confront the marginalized or hostile setting in Canada that their counterparts do in the United States – and thus have less reason in Canada to be intolerant toward active affiliates. Only more data and time will help to probe this subject further.

What role does immigration play for the future of religion in Canada and does immigration pose problems for the secularization thesis?

Immigration is essential to this discussion. First, immigration keeps Catholics and evangelicals afloat. How these groups respond to and embrace immigrant communities will factor into whether these Christian communities thrive, survive, or dwindle in the years ahead. Second, immigration contributes to the growth of non-Christian religious traditions. However, I note that Canada is not as religiously diverse as many assume – only 7.2% of the entire Canadian population identifies with a non-Christian tradition. While this figure will continue to rise, it is not as expansive, proportionately, as suggested in popular rhetoric. In the end, immigration slows but does not reverse the secularization process in Canada.

Will secularization give rise to innovative and entrepreneurial activities in Canadian congregations?

Very likely, as my latest research on flourishing congregations in Canada reveals. But what is the source of growth in such congregations? It is primarily transfer growth or retaining children and youth within that tradition. In other words, innovation and entrepreneurial initiatives such as new church plants or “Christian” coffee shops, for example – while occurring – are not reversing the secularizing trends.

Unanswered Questions

Several other questions came my way too. For example:

  • Can individuals pinpoint, understand, or articulate motivations for their own behaviours? What are the limits of micro-level data collection and analysis?
  • Is it possible that belief in the afterlife is a more salient motivation for religious affiliation, belief, and/or behaviour at the point of conversion versus later in one’s life?
  • How do my findings compare with the “believing without belonging” and “spiritual but not religious” literature?
  • How transferrable are the findings in this book for those in religious traditions outside of Christianity? Moreover, how applicable are the findings in Quebec?
  • How do these findings intersect with larger political, economic, cultural, and global realities in late modern society? Related, how does disengagement from religious organizations compare to disengagement from other social institutions?

Space does not permit me to address each question here, though these are all helpful and logical questions to extend the methodological and theoretical underpinnings to my work. The final question is the most intriguing to me, and one that I hope to interact with more completely in my future thinking and writing related to religion and culture in Canada.

To conclude, Marcus Mann picked up on the theme in my book where Canadians share the ethos that religion is a private matter and thus individuals or groups should not and generally do not push their religion on others, so as to not offend or exclude them. In turn Marcus suggested an alternative title to the book: How Canadian Politeness Killed Religion. This is a provocative statement that I wish I thought of first – politeness is not the sole variable at work, but in Canada it is an important factor that should not be ignored.

Thanks to all who have generously interacted with The Meaning of Sunday, and to those who continue to use this book as part of an evolving conversation in the sociology of religion, in Canada and elsewhere.


Joel Thiessen is Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of the Flourishing Congregations Institute at Ambrose University in Calgary, Alberta (Canada). The focus of his research is religion and culture in Canada, including secularization, religious nones, nominal and regular church attenders, religious and secular socialization, and congregations. He is author of two books, The Sociology of Religion: A Canadian Perspective (Oxford University Press) and The Meaning of Sunday: The Practice of Belief in a Secular Age (McGill-Queen’s University Press), along with a range of articles. He is an avid sports fan, and a drummer, and he enjoys reading biographies, traveling, and exercising. For more information see www.joelthiessen.ca.

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