Is Canada’s youth losing its religion?
By Ian Frose – March 30, 2011
Rachael Dawn-Craig, 28, knows just how painfully lonely it can be to leave the church. After all, she has experience. “Especially new atheists can often feel really scared about their loss of faith, that they can’t tell anybody. Some people even get kicked out of their home. I did.” Abandoning her Pentecostal denomination was a costlier decision than most who decide to make similar stands against organized religion. However, Dawn-Craig is far from alone. In 1971, less than one per cent of Canadians admitted they were not associated with a religion. Today, that number has jumped to 23 per cent. Dawn-Craig, a neuroscience undergrad student from Dalhousie University, had difficulty acknowledging as a teenager she had become an atheist.
She first doubted her faith after reading the religious opinions of scientists instead of creationists when she was 16. She was taking baptismal classes at the time. “I didn’t even want to ask questions to my pastor or my parents or anybody because I was afraid if I did then they would stop believing too and feel as badly as I did,” she said. “Which, you know, isn’t great logic, but that’s how I felt about it at the time.” Dawn-Craig said faith was not the only reason she was booted from her home at 18, though she declined to elaborate. She says that her relationship with her family is better today. “I had a very closeted upbringing, so when I came out of it, it was really hard and really isolating and required a lot of work on my part to get a new picture of the world,” she said. “It can be a pretty big deal, and having a community that can support you through a shift like that or just say they understand is also a big deal.” To that end, Dawn-Craig helped launch the Dalhousie Atheist Community in 2009. They are on hiatus this school year, but will apply for reinstatement in September. Dawn-Craig is just one example of the increasing atheism of youth. In a worrisome trend for religious leaders, more than half of individuals aged 15 to 29 either list no faith or do not attend a worship service, says Statistics Canada. Rev. Brad Close, Christian Reformed chaplain at the Dalhousie Multifaith Centre, believes religion must adapt if it wants to prevent further people from leaving its practices. “Religious institutions can continue doing what they’re doing and die a slow death in the early part of the 21st century in the West,” said Close. “We’re at a point where there has to be another significant reformation and the vision for it has to be thoroughly relational. People have to be willing to give up what they cherished in the past, in respect to buildings, the structures in how they assembled, how they performed their religious ceremonies, all those things.” Close, 33, feels young Canadians are at odds with the church, mosque, synagogue or temple because of a disgust with its hypocrisy and its reluctance to change. “I think there’s a lot of angst and frustration with how institutions can be very stifling and can discourage dialogue, and I think those things are very unattractive to young people,” he said. “They want relationships. They want closeness.
They want close interaction within two or three feet from each other.” This increased secularism is also driving away the religious, many of whom are coming from abroad. Abraham Selvaraj, 23, moved from India to pursue a Master of Engineering (Internetworking) at Dalhousie, assuming his new country would be the Christian sanctuary he had heard about. He was wrong. “It broke my heart. It broke my heart,” said Selvaraj, after Campus For Christ explained there are not nearly as many believers as he imagined. “More than half the people aren’t Christian. It’s a very heartbreaking discovery., Selvaraj said” He admits it’s difficult to follow his faith in a progressively secular society, but he has the support of new friends. “I bond with the Christian family. I want to spread the gospel to all the people here, but they aren’t showing much interest.” Although familiarity with religious institutions is dropping, Close says the divine remains crucial in the lives of young Canadians. “It does not necessarily mean percentage-wise that young adults are not seeking depth and that they’re not exploring the spiritual dimension of life,” said Close. “It may actually mean they’re more engaged with faith and spirituality. I understand that’s a paradox, but it’s very true in my experience with young adults.”